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Chicago Residents in Danger of Toxic Air from Coal-Fired Power Plants

Chicago Residents in Danger of Toxic Air from Coal-Fired Power Plants

Sierra Club

Chicago residents are at risk of high exposure to dangerous sulfur dioxide, according to air pollution modeling released by the Sierra Club Oct. 31. Sulfur dioxide, emitted by Chicago’s two coal plants, is linked to asthma attacks, severe respiratory problems, lung disease, neurological damage and heart complications.

Detailed maps created using ArcGIS software, which used air concentrations calculated by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) AERMOD (air dispersion model) trace the path of sulfur dioxide pollution from Chicago’s Fisk and Crawford coal plants. The modeling shows that Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods are hot spots for dangerous toxins from the two coal plants.

For an aerial map, click here.

“This new data shows that pollution from Chicago’s coal plants is even worse than we thought. These dirty plants pose an enormous threat to the health of children living in the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods,” said Christine Nannicelli, Sierra Club organizer for the Beyond Coal Campaign.

Until recently, the EPA has depended on air monitors to measure the levels of sulfur dioxide, and has used these measurements to determine if coal plants were a threat to public health. But air monitors have limited capacity to measure overall air pollution. As a result, the EPA is now using air modeling in order to establish the most accurate picture of pollution risk, predict violations and protect public health.

“Since air monitors are scattered about in widely-spaced locations, they fail to identify many areas with elevated sulfur dioxide air impacts,” said meteorologist Camille Sears. “Air modeling gives a much more complete and accurate picture of how coal plants affect surrounding neighborhoods.”

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA established National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQs) for five pollutants that have the potential to harm the public health. Sulfur dioxide is among these pollutants, and is linked to asthma attacks, severe respiratory problems, lung disease, neurological damage and risk of heart complications. As a result, sulfur dioxide national ambient air quality levels must be reviewed by the EPA every five years to determine if they are adequate to protect public health.

“With this modeling, we wanted to determine whether sulfur dioxide emissions from Midwest Generation’s coal-fired power plants have the capacity to cause air pollution at levels the EPA has established as dangerous to human health,” said Kristin Henry, staff attorney for the Sierra Club. “We found that pollution from these coal plants, as modeled, violates EPA’s standards and puts Chicago residents at risk for serious health problems.”

Coal-burning power plants are a major source of air pollution in the U.S., and especially in Chicago. According to the Clean Air Task Force Study in 2010, pollution from Midwest Generation’s Fisk and Crawford plants leads to roughly 42 premature deaths, 66 heart attacks and 720 asthma attacks each year.

"This modeling is an extremely disturbing reminder of what we in these neighborhoods have known all along,” said Rose Gomez, a Sierra Club volunteer who grew up in the Little Village neighborhood. “The pollution from Midwest Generation makes these neighborhoods unsafe places to live and raise a family. We should not have to live next to these polluters and breathe this toxic air any more."

Chicago is the only major metropolitan area with not only one, but two polluting coal plants within the city limits. The Sierra Club has been an active member of the Chicago Clean Power Coalition which is working with Mayor Rahm Emanuel to retire the Fisk and Crawford coal plants and rid the city of the dangerous pollution they spew.

“The only thing Chicagoans are getting from these coal plants is toxic air,” said Nannicelli. “The coal burned in the plants comes from Wyoming, the power it produces is sold out of state, and the profits it earns goes to a California-based company. All we’re left with is dangerous pollution. And Chicago kids pay the price.”

For more information, click here.

air
A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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