Kimberly Wasserman was 21 when her 3-month-old son began to have trouble breathing. Terrified, she brought him to the emergency room and agonized while the infant struggled under an oxygen mask.
Anthony had had an asthma attack. The doctors said it was triggered by something in his environment in the Chicago Latino neighborhood known as Little Village.
“I just kept getting madder and madder,” Wasserman said in a recent interview. “I wanted to know: How can I improve the overall environment that he’s in so it doesn’t happen again?”
Her efforts to answer these questions have made Wasserman a local hero and the North American winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize. The six worldwide winners were announced last week and each gets $150,000.
In 1999, Wasserman began work at Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, where she went door to door with Anthony in a knapsack to survey local residents in the low-income, Mexican-American community. She found high rates of asthma, respiratory ailments, premature death, miscarriages and infant mortality.
Coal was the probable culprit. Two Midwest Generation LLC power plants -- Crawford in Little Village and Fisk in the nearby Pilsen neighborhood -- were so old they were exempt from the stricter emission standards that apply to newer plants.
“Our communities were being sacrificed to make some money,” Wasserman said.
In 2000, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health who were investigating the health impact of nine aging power plants in Illinois, including Fisk and Crawford, found a correlation between health problems and proximity to coal power stations.
For Wasserman, the Harvard study was a vindication. “This report backed up what we’ve been saying. These coal power plants are dirty and disgusting and they are basically killing our community.”
Coal-powered plants emit the pollutants sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter. The two Cook County plants also were churning out 4.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, by far the biggest emission of greenhouse gases in Chicago.
In their battle with the coal plants, residents of Cook County got support from the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and Physicians for Social Responsibility. In May 2011, Greenpeace activists climbed the Fisk smokestack and painted “QUIT COAL” in gigantic letters.
The activists’ political allies included Alderman Joe Moore, who traveled to West Virginia to see how coal mining was leveling the Appalachian mountains.
“We were able to make serious connections with the mountaintop-removal fight,” Wasserman said. “The issue is not just about an isolated coal power plant in Chicago. We’re talking about the life cycle of coal in general.”
Mayoral candidates in 2011 spoke out on the issue. Wasserman said the politicians “saw an opportunity to connect with the Latino vote. They took this as their issue and brought it to the spotlight.”
The fight came to a head in early 2012 when the new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, told Midwest Generation to clean up or get out. The company opted for the latter, and last August it closed Fisk and Crawford. Wasserman summed up the end of a long fight: “Holy crap, a politician following through.”
Wasserman, now 36, took me on a short drive around Little Village and Pilsen, where the now-defunct smokestacks stand idle and smoke-free. I met her son Anthony, now 14, and another son, Peter, who also has asthma and who was featured in a billboard as the face of the fight with coal. (Wasserman’s daughter hasn’t shown asthmatic symptoms.)
The sidewalks were thick with schoolchildren. It was startling to look at these kids and know they have more health problems than children elsewhere, just because they happen to live near old coal-fired power plants. That should change over time as the air clears, and there are plans to track health issues in the neighborhood.
Wasserman said she will use the Goldman Prize money to resume a long-interrupted college career, and she looks forward to not being an activist for a while.
“I’ve been doing this for 14 or 15 years now and I need a break.” She has earned it.
(Mike Di Paola previously wrote about 2013 Goldman winner Azzam Alwash, a dual citizen of Iraq and the U.S. The other prize recipients this year were Jonathan Deal, South Africa; Rossano Ercolini, Italy; Aleta Baun, Indonesia; and Nohra Padilla, Colombia.)
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Mike Di Paola at email@example.com.