A retired coal-fired power plant looms over Chicago's Little Village neighborhood. Credit: Chris Bentley / Flickr

In Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, residents say a redevelopment plan for a retired coal plant site would simply swap one type of dangerous air pollution for another.

For years, residents of Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood fought to close an archaic coal-burning power plant in their midst. The plant, along with one nearby in the Pilsen neighborhood, shut down in 2012 after becoming the focus of an international environmental justice campaign and unable to compete with cheaper natural gas-fired power.

Residents celebrated the closing as a victory, and for several years worked with city planners, architects and the non-profit Delta Institute to develop elaborate plans for what they’d like to see on the site: a park, a solar farm, a commercial kitchen for the area’s many street food vendors.

But recently they learned the site is likely to become a logistics facility — a warehousing hub that would draw constant truck traffic emitting diesel fumes. As local leaders see it, this would mean swapping one type of dangerous air pollution for another.

Last week the Chicago area-based global company Hilco announced its acquisition of the 70-acre property from NRG, the power company which owned the two defunct coal plant sites since acquiring Midwest Generation, the coal plant owner that went into bankruptcy. Hilco plans to demolish the coal plant and remediate the site, then lease it to a tenant.

In a press release, Hilco Redevelopment Partners president and managing partner Roberto Perez said, “This location and current zoning classification offers great potential to serve as a last-mile distribution and logistics facility given its proximity to such a significant population center.”

Gary Epstein, Hilco Global executive vice president and chief marketing officer, said it is “premature” to say that the site will be a logistics facility, and said the company is focused on doing a thorough environmental remediation, expected to take 14 to 24 months, and working with community members to make sure it meets their standards.

Hilco has redeveloped other major brownfield sites, including the former site of a Boston power plant and a 3,100-acre former steel mill in Baltimore that became the “largest tri-modal logistics hub on the eastern seaboard,” according to Hilco’s press release. There it has signed contracts with FedEx Ground, Amazon and Under Armour. Chicago is in the running to become the site of Amazon’s new second corporate headquarters, a move which could seemingly expand the area’s already extensive logistics industry.

Community benefits

Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), said the local alderman informed the group about the acquisition several weeks ago. She and other leaders are upset that city and NRG officials didn’t tell them about the negotiations with Hilco earlier, especially given the non-binding agreement that LVEJO and groups in Pilsen entered with the city meant to give residents a voice in the future of the coal plant sites. (NRG spokesman David Gaier referred questions to Hilco.)

Wasserman said LVEJO had previously voiced support for a Community Benefits Agreement with any new developers of the coal plant site, ensuring jobs for local residents and other provisions. But she and LVEJO policy director Juliana Pino said that since the group is wholly opposed to a logistics facility that would bring in polluting trucks, they now refuse to be part of such an agreement.

“We were excited about a community benefits agreement when there was no end-use in site,” said Wasserman. “But this is such a redoubling of injustice and harm to replace what could be a site that would serve the community. It’s wresting the fate of this site out of the hands of the community.”

A logistics facility could create many jobs in a neighborhood hard-hit by unemployment, where 38 percent of residents live below the poverty line. But Wasserman emphasizes that jobs in warehouses and the larger logistics industry are known to be low-paying and often based on employment through temporary agencies, where employees are hired through subsequent short-term contracts and rarely accrue significant raises or benefits.

Truck drivers likewise often work long hours under physical stress for relatively low pay, she noted, and themselves face health risks from exposure to diesel fumes.

“Across the board there are massive concerns around both pollution and the environmental and labor concerns for the workers,” Wasserman said. “This is not what the community is asking for. Never did anyone say when the plants shut down, logistics would be great. The local food economy is what makes Little Village really strong. It’s a cash economy with street vendors, yet we have no commercial kitchen. It’s clear people want Crawford to become a commercial kitchen. And if possible we also want to generate energy on-site through solar panels, and we want green space.”

Epstein said that development on the site will create jobs both directly and by “ringing cash registers” in local businesses that serve the new employees. And Perez said people may not understand the potential of logistics jobs.

“Today’s new economy does have a logistics component to it,” he said. “A warehouse is no longer just a warehouse — you can think of it as a modern industrial facility, something that everyone in Little Village will be very excited about.”

Diesel fears

Existing and future diesel pollution in the neighborhood — which is bisected by several major trucking routes, railroads and a shipping canal — has long been a major concern for LVEJO and Little Village residents. For years the community has fought to stop the expansion of the Unilever factory that makes Hellmann’s mayonnaise, an expansion that the company said would mean 500 to 900 more semi-trucks per day.

Last year LVEJO did its own study logging the number of diesel trucks passing busy intersections. During busy time periods they found five to seven trucks passing every 15 minutes — a truck every few minutes. The group did air monitoring with through a city-sponsored project in the fall of 2017 that showed high levels of diesel emissions in the neighborhood. 

Diesel pollution is proven to have multiple serious health ramifications, since diesel exhaust contains ultra-fine PM2.5 particles that penetrate the blood-brain barrier, and more than 40 other components linked to elevated cancer risk. Because of the ultra-fine particulate and the fact that emissions are ground-level, many consider diesel pollution from trucks to be even more alarming than coal plant emissions for local residents. Residents are also worried about the impact on quality of life and public safety with more diesel trucks on major roads that are lined with homes, businesses and schools.

Little Village has long been a residential neighborhood intermingled with heavy industry, with the railroads and the shipping canal transporting coal for the power plant and raw materials and products for factories. The city is going through a planning process to bolster and revamp the officially designated industrial corridor, with a stated focus on bringing in “sustainable” industry.

Hilco’s press release quotes Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel: “When we closed down Chicago’s last two coal plants, we committed to creating a cleaner, brighter and more sustainable future for Chicago’s neighborhoods…I look forward to working with Hilco Redevelopment Partners to turn this site from a vestige of Chicago’s past to a vibrant part of our shared future.”

But LVEJO leaders see logistics and other developments proposed for the neighborhood as far from sustainable. They say this is a key moment in the neighborhood’s future, when new development could be created that provides good jobs with low environmental impact, or more pollution and displacement.

“EJ organizers in Little Village contend that local development plans and projects should prioritize public health and consider the potential for displacement,” wrote LVEJO adviser Antonio Lopez in an editorial accompanying an interactive map of local environmental justice-related sites. “They argue that emerging redevelopment plans should build upon major grassroots victories for a healthier community. Instead, the struggle for environmental justice in Little Village has recently escalated as multiple redevelopment plans and projects threaten to undermine hard-fought environmental improvements aimed at benefiting long time community members.”

Correction: Air quality testing in the Little Village neighborhood by the Environmental Law & Policy Center in 2015 was inconclusive because of technical issues with the air monitor. A previous version of this story misstated the results of those tests.

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.