Kelly Mitchell’s adrenaline surged as she began her ascent up the 450-foot smoke stack at the Fisk coal-fired power plant in Chicago. Wearing a tight-fitting safety harness and loaded down with industrial climbing gear, Mitchell, along with seven other activists from Greenpeace, scaled the stack at the break of dawn on Tuesday in order to paint “Quit Coal” in bright yellow on the side of the towering structure.
Greenpeace coordinated this action—the most high profile anti-coal protest the group has orchestrated in the United States—to protest both the local problems associated with coal-fired power generation (air pollution that causes sickness and death) and its aggregate contributions to global warming as a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions.
While Greenpeace is demanding that Fisk and the nearby Crawford plant be shut down, it is also sending a message to other parts of the environmental and climate justice movements. In the wake of failed efforts to push Congress to pass comprehensive climate change legislation, many in the movement—not least those perched atop the smoke stack at Fisk—argue it is time for more radical tactics.
Halfway up the stack, Mitchell took phone calls from the media and explained her participation: “We need bold action. Air pollution and climate change are urgent problems that are not being addressed by our leaders, whether they are in government or business. I hope this action can bring attention to that need for urgency.”
The Fisk and Crawford plants are the largest single sources of air pollution in Chicago. Together, these two plants spew thousands of tons of soot, mercury, and oxides of nitrogen and sulfur into the atmosphere and are directly responsible for forty-two deaths, 720 asthma attacks and sixty-six heart attacks annually, according to a September 2010 study by the Clean Air Task Force.
Fisk and Crawford emit millions of tons of heat trapping carbon dioxide, too, placing them among the nation’s leading stationary contributors to global warming. Think of them as an around-the-clock, Los Angeles–style traffic snarl, where tens of thousands of motorists are revving their engines and going absolutely nowhere.
And its been going on for several decades.
Fisk began generating power in 1903, Crawford in 1924. They’ve both been rebuilt since, but because construction took place prior to passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, the plants are able to operate without widely used technologies for reducing air pollution.
These days, Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of California-based Edison International, owns and operates these aging relics. Edison—ironically enough—features images of wind turbines, solar panels and smart electric meters on its corporate website.
“Edison actually does a lot of good stuff,” Mitchell says into her cell phone as Chicago police begin to gather far below. “Edison is the largest purchaser of renewable energy of any American utility. They are phasing out coal power out West. Yet, while they promote this green image nationally, they are operating one of the dirtiest coal fleets in the country—in this case right in the middle of a major city.”
While the Greenpeace action seeks to push Edison to close the Fisk and Crawford facilities, viewed in a national context, its use of nonviolent direct-action tactics also represents a decisive break from how the mainstream environmental movement has advocated for its agenda over the past years. The climate bill’s failure has many activists questioning the point of pressing for legislation in DC, especially when most of it is likely to be watered down to the point of uselessness.