Fisk and Crawford Coal Plant, IL

Polluting the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods of Chicago for decades, Fisk and Crawford Generating Stations were closed in 2012 after a successful campaign waged a host of players including local grassroots leadership, local politicians, and national environmental and civil rights groups.

Environmental Justice Issues

In 2011, the NAACP published Coal Blooded, reporting that Fisk and Crawford were the worst two offenders of all coal plants nationwide[1]. Fisk and Crawford received failing grades based on the following factors[2]:

  • High Sulfur dioxide SO2 and nitric oxide NOx emissions
  • Dense population living within 3 miles of the plant
  • Affected population was poor and people of color

The high emission of particulate matter, SO2 and NOx, caused serious health problems among the Little Village and Pilsen populations.  In their 2010 report[3], the Clean Air Task Force attributed unacceptable incidence of death and disease to egregious levels of fine particle pollution emitted from the plants.


After years of unacceptable conditions, local communities started grassroots movements to combat the high levels of pollution in their neighborhoods. The Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) was created to advocate for the health and safety of the community and to inform residents about the dangers of pollution[4]. Similarly, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) was created to raise awareness environmental injustice in their neighborhood. They lead “Toxic Tours” to “educate the community and others about the looming toxic presence in their backyards”[5]. These grassroots movements raised awareness and provided a voice for the populations harmed by the Fisk and Crawford plants.

While local communities suffered, Midwest Generation, Fisk and Crawford’s parent company, minimized operating costs by not investing in pollution control technology.  There was a distinct dichotomy of actors affected by the plants—the owners reaped the financial gain while the local communities bore the human cost.

Timeline of Closing

The plants operated by this winner-loser model for years. In early 2009, local grassroots movements organized with larger environmental organizations and other political actors to eventually close the plants.

  • July 2009: CARE, the NRDC, and the Sierra Club Filed a lawsuit against Midwest Generation for failure to bring the plants up to Clean Air Act standards[6]
  • August 2009: The EPA, U.S. Department of Justice, and State of Illinois filed a lawsuit for “illegally emitting large amounts of SO2, NOx, and particulate matter”[7]
  • April 2010: Alderman Joe Moore proposed the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance in response to the failure of existing state and federal laws to combat the negative effects of the plants[8]
  • July 2011: The Chicago Clean Power Ordinance gained the support of Aldermen Moore and Solis, Mayor Emmanuel, and 35 co-sponsors[9]
  • February 2012: Emmanuel issued an ultimatum that Midwest Generation “come up with a plan to clean up or shut down by the end of February, or face the Clean Power Ordinance”[10]
  • August 2012: Midwest Generation closes Fisk and Crawford Generating Stations[11]

Political Context

Fisk and Crawford were grandfathered into an exemption from the Clean Air Act, which would have allowed the EPA to limit their emissions[12]. The exemption was “based on the assumption that control costs would be excessive and older plants would soon be phased out”[13]. An unintended consequence of grandfathering was that it extended life of older facilities because of their relatively low operating costs[14].

Political Economic Theories

Political economic theories explain why the Fisk and Crawford operations caused high pollution levels; the theories argue that capitalism undermines the environment[15].

Surplus Value

Midwest Generation’s plants accumulated the surplus value of production, which is the “value produced by underpaying labor and over extracting from the environment”[16]. Firms need to compound this surplus value to grow and survive, so they often cut costs in environmental protection infrastructure, as Midwest Generation did at Fisk and Crawford.

Second Contradiction of Capitalism

Cost cutting to maximize profit often results in the second contradiction of capitalism, which is “the tendency for capitalism to eventually undermine the environmental conditions for its own perpetuation, through degradation of natural resources or damage to the health of workers”[17]. In Little Village and Pilsen, the health of workers in local communities was undermined because Midwest Generation wanted to operate at minimal costs.

Spatial Fix

Spatial fix is “the tendency of capitalism to temporarily solve its inevitable periodic crises by establishing new markets, new resources, and new sites of production in other places”[18]. Fisk and Crawford were a spatial fix, because they exported electricity to the national grid to maintain reliability during peak times[19]. The plants solved geographically distant energy provision crises remotely, exacting a cost on local communities.

Environmental Justice Theory

In his article Environmental Justice, Paul Mohai et al. outlined several explanations for why low-income people and non-white communities bear a disproportionate amount of environmental hazards.


Firms seek maximal profits by locating in areas where it is most affordable to operate.   Often these locations are where poor and people of color live[20]. Pilsen and Little Village are attractive to business seeking low cost land values and a cheap labor force. Further, the local alderman sought to incentivize the location of industry through tax breaks[21]. The existence of the plants further marginalized these communities.

Racial Discrimination

Racial discrimination can also produce environmental injustice if marginalized communities are zoned as industrial[22]. Pilsen and Little Village have a legacy of housing immigrant populations, being primarily Polish, Czech, and Lithuanian from the late 1800s until the 1950s when it became predominantly Latino[23]. As an immigrant community, the area has a history of marginalization and ethnic segregation.


Firms prefer to operate in locations where there will be the least resistance[24]. These low-income immigrant communities are “an easier target because they have fewer resources and are not well represented in the decision making of industry and government”[25]. They lacked the political power that was necessary to oppose the initial siting of Fisk and Crawford.


The success of the campaign to close Fisk and Crawford was due to a collaborative multi-level campaign of grassroots organizations, local political leaders, and national environmental groups. The local community groups initiated the effort and struggled for many years, which created the “sustained pressure necessary for other actors—such as legislators and regulators—to move in effective ways”[26]. This collective effort finally led to the closing of the plants in 2012, relieving the local communities from compromised living conditions.

Works Cited

[1] Patterson, Jacqui, Katie Fink, Kimberly Wasserman, Amanda Starbuck, Annie Sartor, Judy Hatcher, and John Fleming (2011). Coal Blooded: Putting Profits before People. Retrieved from:

[2] Patterson (2011)

[3] SourceWatch (2012). Crawford Generating Station. Retrieved from:

[4] PERRO – Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (n.d.). About Our Campaign. Retrieved from:

[5] Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (n.d.). About Us: Our Principles of Environmental Justice. Retrieved from:

[6] Patterson (2011)

[7] Patterson (2011)

[8] Patterson (2011)

[9] GreenPeace (n.d.). A Grassroots Victory for Chicago. Retrieved from:

[10] GreenPeace (n.d.)

[11] Patterson (2011)

[12] Patterson (2011)

[13] Patterson (2011)

[14] Levy, Jonathan, John Spengler, Dennis Hlinka, David Sullivan, Dennis Moon (2002). Using CALPUFF to Evaluate the Impacts of Power Plant Emissions in Illinois: Model Sensitivity and Implications. Atmospheric Environment, 36(6), 1063-1075.

[15] Robbins, Paul, John Hintz, Sarah Moore (2014). Political Economy. Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction, Critical Introductions to Geography, 98-118. West Sussex: Wiley.

[16] Robbins (2014)

[17] Robbins (2014)

[18] Robbins (2014)

[19] PERRO (n.d.)

[20] Mohai, Paul, David Pellow, J. Timmons Roberts (2009). Environmental Justice. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 34(1), 405-30.

[21] PERRO (n.d.)

[22] Mohai (2009)

[23] Betancur, John (2005). Gentrification before Gentrification? The Plight of Pilsen in Chicago. Retrieved from:

[24] Mohai (2009)

[25] Mohai (2009)

[26] Patterson (2011)


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