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Little Village Coal Killer Wins National Leadership Prize

By JoshMogerman in News on Apr 20, 2013 9:00PM

Kimberly Wasserman Nieto [Goldman Environmental Prize]

Who knew closing “cloud factories” could lead to acclaim? This week, Little Village activist Kimberly Wasserman received one of the nation’s most prestigious environmental awards for doing just that.

Wasserman, referred to as Chicago’s Erin Brockovich, was awarded the Goldman Prize for her work at the forefront of the decades-long fight to close the city’s outdated coal plants. Henry Henderson, Chicago’s first Commissioner of the Environment, noted the significance of the announcement:

The annual Goldman Prize is an exceptionally important honor, celebrating the extraordinary commitment of grassroots environmental leaders who stand for the integrity and dignity of citizens and communities. The annual announcement of awards is something that people who care about democracy and the health of our nation look forward to every year.

This year, I found it invigorating to see the award go to Kimberly Wasserman Nieto, who is one of the most committed and determined leaders in the long fight waged in my city to close Chicago’s Fisk and Crawford coal plants.

In 1998, she was pulled into the coal plant fights after her 3-month old baby was seized by an asthma attack that required a hospital visit and quickly realized that many others in her Little Village neighborhood were suffering similarly due, at least in part, to pollution in the area. Her Goldman Prize bio notes that the impacts of the Crawford Generating Station less than a mile away were not readily understood by many of her neighbors:

Toxic emissions from the smokestacks—unwittingly called “cloud factories” by local kids—would waft over the sky in Little Village, while coal dust from the plants’ stockpile settled onto houses and school grounds. The pollution intensified during the winter and summer, when the plants ramped up operations to fill energy demands—mostly coming from other states. ...

Keeping these local voices front and center, Wasserman worked with other local community-based organizations to form a strategic alliance with faith, health, labor, and environmental groups and reached out to local policymakers. With limited resources, they mounted a formidable campaign that got residents out to picket and attend public hearings, organize “Toxic Tours” of industrial sites and stage a “Coal Olympics” timed around the city’s bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games.

The closure of Fisk and Crawford last year has not slowed her group, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LEVEJO) down. The group is part of a coalition working to push for clean up and redevelopment of the coal plant sites while also addressing issues of lead contamination in the area--all worthy work which helps the entire city.