PERRO in the News: In Pilsen questions remain over cleanup of Fisk site

From Drew Kann of Medill Reports: “In Pilsen questions remain over cleanup of Fisk site

Drew Kann/MEDILL. PERRO volunteers at this past weekend’s open house show the local activist group’s recently released recommendations for the use of the Fisk Generation Station site.

PERRO volunteers at this past weekend’s open house show the local activist group’s recently released recommendations for the use of the Fisk Generation Station site.

Drew Kann/MEDILL. PERRO volunteer Rose Gomez makes a sign at Saturday’s open-house viewing of the activist group’s redevelopment plans for the now-shuttered Fisk Generation Station site.

Outlined in blue is the land on the Fisk Generation Station site that is available for future redevelopment, according to the PERRO report.

There is no shortage of ideas among Pilsen residents about what to do with the site of the now-shuttered Fisk Generation Station located in the West Side Chicago neighborhood.

However, many in the area seem to share one concern: site remediation and cleanup.

Visitors trickled into a 21st Street studio apartment Saturday and Sunday to examine the redevelopment plans that the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) compiled from more than 200 survey responses collected over the past seven months.

The all-day open-house event offered many members of the community their first glimpse of the proposed redevelopment plans since their official release to the press and public on Oct. 13.

According to PERRO, the report reflects the community’s vision for what should become of the former coal power station.

Image courtesy of Google Maps. Outlined in blue is the land on the Fisk Generation Station site that is available for future redevelopment, according to the PERRO report.

Thirty-seven percent of survey respondents want the site to converted into green space or a public- access river walk, while 27 percent cite jobs in the form of green manufacturing as their desired end use. Smaller factions expressed interest in developing the land into retail or residential space, or even into a community center.

There are many parallels between the PERRO report and the city’s task force report, which was commissioned by Mayor Emanuel and released in Septembe. There is one notable difference: the issue of remediation.

There are still lingering concerns among residents about potential contaminants on the site, with 54 percent of those surveyed citing remediation as their greatest concern.

The city’s task force report states that, “Sites will be remediated at the appropriate time, consistent with uses and requirements of applicable city laws and environmental regulations.”

PERRO’s report goes much further, demanding an extensive, two-phase remediation process, with the results of water, soil and building tests being made public.

It is clear that to some in Pilsen, a task force recommendation isn’t enough, as the plant operator, Midwest Generation, continues to court prospective developers.

According to PERRO co-founder Jerry Mead-Lucero, Midwest Generation has conducted a “phase one” assessment of the site, but the findings have not been made public. A “phase one” assessment typically does not involve physical soil and water testing, but does include compiling a list of potential contaminants and toxins associated with this type of coal-burning generation station that inspectors should check.

“When you do sell a property like this to a buyer, it would be typical for the buyer to request a phase one and phase two,” said Mead-Lucero. “But if the buyer chooses not to, that’s up to them. There’s no obligation for that to happen and there’s no obligation for them to share any of this with the public.”

Midwest Generation declined to comment on this story.

“Just looking at the readings that the EPA took when they were trying to identify the impact of another polluter in the area, that data shows that the coal power plant was emitting a lot of pollutants,” said Jose Rodriguez, a longtime PERRO volunteer. “We know that the land around [Fisk] is going to have some high level of pollutants, and we want the EPA to be very active in not letting the developers or the current owners just walk away from it and not take any responsibility in the cleanup.”

Leila Mendez, a member of PERRO’s coordinating committee who claims she developed a tumor in 1998 as a direct result of the environmental pollution from the coal plant, is confident that regardless of who buys the site, PERRO will make sure that the property is properly cleared of hazardous materials.

“We can’t allow this to continue,” said Mendez. “We will be guarding and watching very closely to make sure that it is remediated and it is safe for the community.”

Others, like Al DiFranco, who has been in Pilsen since 1974 and lives a half-mile from the old smokestack, are less confident that the voices of the community will be heard.

“Pilsen has been pimped, punked and played for so many years that I don’t think that people understand when they’re being ripped off by the politicians and the corporate interests anymore,” said DiFranco. “They might think that they understand how they’re being ripped off, but if they saw the entire scheme of it and how long it’s been going on, it would be an outrage and they’d be out in the streets fighting. Sadly, that has not happened.”

Twenty-two percent of those surveyed by PERRO listed preserving the site for its historical significance as their No. 1 redevelopment concern, in spite of the lengthy fight to shut down the plant.

When it was built in 1903, the Powerhouse that sits along the bank of the Chicago River housed the world’s first all-steam turbine generating plant. According to the PERRO report, this should be the first building considered for preservation.

Though it’s not Mendez’s primary concern about the future of the site, preservation is important to her for different reasons.

“It’s a symbol, but I also will never forget the people who died because of that smokestack,”  Mendez said. “I could have been one of them.”

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