Local Lead: Pollution around Chicago school reminds us what is at stake in DC's Clean Air Act fight

Sometimes those of us outside the Beltway need reminders about how the battles in DC impact our day-to-day lives. The Chicago Tribune tossed a big reminder grenade into the local consciousness this weekend with a front-page expose detailing appalling levels of lead pollution in the air around an elementary school unfortunately situated between a smelter and aging coal plant in the Pilsen neighborhood. Not be belabor the point, but this is the worst possible pollutant in the worst possible place. Lead and young brains do not mix. Most scientists agree there is just no safe lead exposure for kids. That is why we pulled the heavy metal out of our gasoline and paint. Common sense, right? So when levels spike to 10 times the current federal standard in the air that 500 students are breathing on a daily basis, we have a problem (though it is true that Illinois EPA is not required to enforce the standard yet).

The  story, by the Trib’s excellent reporter Michael Hawthorne, makes clear what is at stake right now as our representatives in Congress are considering weakening the laws that should be protecting these kids. Removing the ability to enforce laws already on the books, funding cuts out of whack with every other federal agency, and false attacks on the foundational laws used to protect the health of our citizens from pollution are all part of the playbook being employed to beat down the Environmental Protection Agency right now. It is short-sighted, wrong-headed and stupid.

And here in Chicago, we pay the price. We already have asthma rates at triple the national average in some neighborhoods as near century-old coal plants continue to churn with limited pollution controls inside and just outside the City limits. Our air shed has been out of Clean Air Act compliance for years thanks to rogue polluters like the H. Kramer and Company smelter implicated in the Chicago Tribune’s lead story. If our representatives in DC ever want to get a handle on these problems, they need to stop trying to score points on the backs of people like the students at Perez Elementary School…

But the counterproductive action in the nation’s capital could still spur action. A new mayor and vast changes in the City Council could be enough to move the Clean Power Ordinance to a vote. The law would force the two coal plants in town to clean up or close down using the Chicago’s strong home rule powers in the Illinois constitution. The electricity they generate is all exported out of town, but as the Trib story makes clear noting the huge amounts of lead and other pollutants emitted from the Fisk coal plant just blocks from the fouled school, their pollution is a very local issue. It would be wise for our representatives in Washington to remember.

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