Nurses Wanted in a City Long Plagued by Coal Plant Pollution

Through efforts to train a more diverse pool of nurses and create family-sustaining careers, workforce leaders in Peoria, Illinois, are jump-starting their economy and addressing the inequities of the past.

All images by Kristen Norman for NRDC

Over the seven years that her mother battled pulmonary sarcoidosis, Jacquelyn Collier and her family had always wondered: Was the illness the result of something in the air?

Collier’s mother, Rasheedah Ali, died in 2017. “It was just always in the back of our minds. And my father was quite sure,” says Collier of the link between the sarcoidosis—an inflammatory disease triggered by an immune system response to microbes, dust, or chemicals—and the air her family breathed.

Collier grew up in the shadows of heavy industry. As a child, her family lived near the Lauhoff soybean and grain processing facility in Danville, Illinois; later, they moved to Peoria, near the E.D. Edwards coal-fired power plant. Both types of facilities emitted the types of particulate air pollution that have been linked to lung damage and other serious health issues.

Now a single mother of two, Collier recalls one of her final conversations with her mom, one that has changed the course of her life. “She said to me, ‘You should have been a nurse,’ because of how I’d take charge when I came to see her at the hospital. She said, ‘Jacquie, go back to school. You can do anything if you apply yourself.’”

Four years later, she’s making good on that advice. Collier, who was laid off at the start of the pandemic last March from her job as a doctor’s office receptionist, recently gained employment as a certified nursing assistant (CNA). Her new position is the fruit of a workforce training program funded by a historic settlement in a Clean Air Act citizen suit against the Edwards plant.

Recent graduate of the CNA Career Pathways Grant Program at ICC, Jacquelyn Collier, in front of her home in Peoria, Illinois

The CNA Career Pathways Grant Program at Illinois Central College (ICC) is one of many “just transition” initiatives resulting from the lawsuit brought by NRDC, Sierra Club, and the Chicago-based Respiratory Health Association in 2013, on behalf of Peoria-area communities. Other programs and organizations benefiting from the $8.6 million settlement include energy efficiency nonprofits, job training centers, and lung-health educational initiatives—many specifically targeting Peoria’s low-income communities and communities of color, which have borne the brunt of the pollution.

“One of the requirements of that settlement is that it would help the community through workforce training,” says Dr. Rita Ali, vice president of workforce and diversity at ICC. She says that many Peoria residents are interested in pursuing nursing careers but lack the credentials needed to get started.

The certified nursing assistant (CNA) lab at Illinois Central College (ICC).

“We saw this CNA route as a pathway to a family-sustaining wage career,” adds Ali, who joined the administration of ICC in 2004. “We want them to go through CNA training, get some experience, possibly take some science courses, and from there, apply and get accepted into an LPN [licensed practical nurse] or RN [registered nurse] program, both of which are in short supply in our medical community.”

Ali herself is now taking the next step in her own career: On May 4, she was sworn in as the first female and first African-American mayor of Peoria. During her election campaign, she highlighted a skills mismatch in the city, which was once a manufacturing hub (Ali’s father worked for the machinery giant Caterpillar, which moved to the Chicago area in 2017). Health care now reigns: Peoria’s two medical centers, OSF Healthcare and UnityPoint Health, are the city’s largest employers and the sector comprises 19 percent of the regional workforce.

“Nurses are in demand in our area,” Ali stresses.

Dr. Rita Ali, newly elected Mayor of Peoria, Illinois

Candidates of color are particularly needed, and ICC’s workforce equity initiative has conducted several LPN training programs to help fill this gap. “Both of our large hospitals have reached out to say, ‘We want to hire the graduates of that program because we need more diversity,’” Ali says. The hospital system is also eager to help funnel more candidates into RN programs and will subsidize the students’ continuing education, she adds. “So we know there is a real opportunity here for careers. We just need a pathway to get these students there.”

Advancement is critical for graduates of the ICC program—CNA wages average just $15 per hour. Meanwhile, Ali says the living wage in Peoria County for an individual is about $12 an hour, and a parent, like Collier, would need to earn about $22 an hour. That’s within reach for graduates of the program who go on to nursing: The average salary for an LPN is $21 an hour; for an RN, $31 an hour. 

“I’m a natural nurturer. I do want to go on to LPN next,” says Collier, who was among the program’s first cohorts after it launched in July 2020. “I’d been trying to [switch into nursing] for the past two years, but the money and the time were always an issue,” she says.

Collier has not had trouble finding work in her new role in the health-care industry. Since graduating in December, she, like many of her peers, has been working for the agency where she did her five weeks of clinicals, or in-the-field training.

CNA program coordinator Amanda Nordstrom in her office at ICC

Before candidates are selected, program coordinator Amanda Nordstrom calls each applicant to get to know their situation and how the program can help. She says that for students like Collier, the grant will make a difference in realizing dreams deferred.

“It pays for tuition, supplies, uniforms, and shoes; a physical; various health screenings; and fees for the state exam, making it possible for individuals who might not be able to afford to further their education,” Nordstrom says. “And then we offer wraparound services. If they’re having trouble in any way—writing a paper, technology issues, bus passes, childcare—we link them to the right resources and just try to provide a support system.”

Through her own life experiences, Nordstrom knows what’s possible with support and perseverance. She readily shares with students how she got pregnant her first year of college, dropped out, and then had to work full-time while taking classes part-time for several years. First hired by ICC in 2007, she spent the next four years there working and completing her associate’s degree before leaving to enroll at Bradley University, also in Peoria. She returned to ICC in 2014, bachelor’s degree in hand.

“That’s why I love my job so much. Because I’ve been there and done that,” says Nordstrom. “I love working in student retention, helping students overcome barriers.”

The CNA training program seeks to enroll 100 Peoria residents by 2024—25 per year—recruiting from both pollution-impacted communities and from the pool of workers expected to be laid off when the Edwards plant closes by the end of 2022.

The E.D. Edwards coal-fired power plant on June 17, 2021

“There were negative consequences from having a power plant so close to our homes, really creating toxins within the environment,” says Ali. Indeed, a federal court found the Edwards plant liable for thousands of Clean Air Act violations stretching back to 2008. As NRDC and its partners have noted, had the plant’s owners invested in the modern pollution controls they needed to comply with regulations, they could have saved millions of dollars in hospitalization costs for residents with cardiovascular disease.

“But the settlement has created some very positive things for our community,” Ali reflects, like “programs that help individuals living within environmental justice communities, opportunities for education, workforce training, jobs.”

Another positive, says Collier, was helping her keep her promise to her mother.

“It’s sad that people had to deal with all the illness and even death that may have been caused by that plant,” she says. “But the grant from the settlement helping people like me be able to go back to school and get educated in health care is a good thing. And you never know, people affected by illness from all that pollution could be the people CNAs are now needed to take care of.”

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