Rafael Hurtado says the grime that coats houses and cars whenever smokestacks are cleaned or coal dust blows off big piles at the nearby coal-fired power plant is just a fact of life in his southwest side Chicago neighborhood. He's learned to manage his asthma after being diagnosed in fourth grade.
Hurtado, now 21 and an organizer with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, celebrated along with neighbors, city officials and others on Wednesday after Midwest Generation agreed to close the city's two aging coal-fired power plants several years earlier than expected.
The company will close its Fisk Generating Station, in the city's Pilsen neighborhood, by the end of the year and its Crawford Generating Station, in Little Village, by the end of 2014, the company and Mayor Rahm Emanuel said. Chicago is the only large U.S. city with two coal-fired plants still operating within its borders.
A coalition of environmental, health and community groups announced agreements with the company earlier in the day.
"This is a great day for everyone -- for the city, not just for me," said Hurtado, who has been a member of the environmental organization since he was a high school freshman.
The company already had said it would sharply reduce emissions at the plants or close them by 2015 and 2018, respectively. But the Chicago Clean Power Coalition and city officials pressured the company to close them sooner, complaining that heart- and lung-damaging pollution emitted by the plants disproportionately affected low-income and primarily Hispanic neighborhoods.
But those efforts got little traction until Emanuel took office last May and made it clear he expected the company to take action.
"Midwest Generation has made an important and appropriate decision today, which will be good for the company, the city and the residents of Chicago," Emanuel said in a statement.
Pedro Pizarro, president of Edison Mission Group, Midwest Generation's parent company, said market conditions weren't favorable enough to invest in expensive pollution upgrades at the aging plants, both of which were built in the early 1900s.
The plants were not subject to more stringent rules imposed on newer plants because they were built in the early 1900s, long before the Clean Air Act.
"People in the communities around the plant lived with this pollution for a long, long time," said Faith Bugel, senior attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a member of the coalition. Closing the plants early, "is a big benefit to everybody from ... four extra years of improved air quality."
In exchange for the closures, Bugel said environmental groups agreed to withdraw from a federal lawsuit against the company. The suit was filed by the Justice Department over claims the company had upgraded its plants without installing pollution control equipment, and the groups intervened
The groups also agreed to support a one-year extension of Midwest's deadline to clean up or shut down one of its operating units at a coal-fired plant in Waukegan, Ill., about 40 miles north of Chicago. The original deadline was 2013 for that unit and 2014 for a second unit at the same site, Bugel said. Now the deadline will be the same for both, if the Illinois Pollution Control Board agrees, she said.
She said the trade-off was a good one, because pollution from the Chicago plants drifted toward Waukegan in the summer.
The closure of the plants, which are relatively small, probably won't affect electric reliability in the Midwest or nationally, said John Hutchinson, senior energy strategist with the Electric Power Research Institute. The industry expects more companies to close old, inefficient plants.
The closures must be approved by PJM Interconnections, which manages the electric grid for 13 states, including the Chicago area.
Midwest Generation has upgraded some pollution controls at the plants in recent years, including controlling 90 percent of mercury emissions. But it still emitted high levels of soot and greenhouse gases.
An ordinance introduced in 2010 and again in 2011 to force the company to clean up soot pollution or close the plants within two years never made it out of a City Council's committee.
Emanuel helped kick-start discussions last fall that led to the agreement, Bugel said. Emanuel also supported a deal that would have helped Midwest get long-term contracts with the state to buy electricity from company's wind farms, but House Speaker Michael Madigan refused to back it.
Community activists said they're now focused on ensuring the sites get cleaned up and reused once the plants shut down. They said Midwest Generation has agreed to establish a community advisory council.
"We are super happy about this ... but we want to also make sure we look forward and are on top of what's coming," said Nelson Soza, executive director of the Pilsen Alliance. The company and the city "want to make sure this is not just another site contaminated and just forgotten inside a fence, and we ... would like some clean jobs."
Jerry Mead-Lucero of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization said a city ordinance would have marked a national victory by setting standards for pollution, but the settlement got the plants closed more quickly and avoided drawn-out litigation.
"This is a victory in so many ways," he said.