Skip to main content

Inside the Struggle for Clean Energy in Waukegan, Illinois

A city once known for its PCB-laden harbor was ready for a comeback—until local politics got in the way.
The Waukegan Harbor is dredged.

The Waukegan Harbor is dredged.

It was May of 2016, and Eileen Shanley-Roberts was driving in her gray station wagon along Waukegan Harbor, flanked on her left side by industrial stacks and abandoned warehouses, and on her right by a massive, boat-lines harbor. "It looks like Mad Max," she said. "It is a totally post-apocalyptic industrial wasteland."

Waukegan, Illinois, is located on the shore of Lake Michigan, a short drive from Chicago. In the 1970s, it was discovered that hydraulic fluid containing polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB for short), toxic chemicals once used as lubricants, had leaked out of a boat motor manufacturing plant and contaminated much of the harbor area. At one point, the harbor had the highest concentration of PCBs anywhere in the world, and it took officials decades of clean-ups to dredge the harbor and consolidate the waste. State officials still monitor PCB levels in the harbor fish annually.

Shanley-Roberts is the rector of Christ Episcopal, a mid-size church located in Waukegan. She's also a member of Clean Power Lake County, a local environmental group. It's her work with the latter of these two organizations that had Shanley-Roberts worked up at the moment, her enthusiasm spilling out as we approached Lake Michigan.

She had just returned from a trip to Philadelphia where, together with other environmentalists, she barged uninvited into a shareholder meeting of NRG Energy, one of the largest energy companies in the country. The group went there to request that the company's chief executive officer, Mauricio Gutierrez, come to visit Waukegan before July. The group's concerns center around a coal-fired power plant on Waukegan's shoreline, owned by NRG. Clean Power Lake County was demanding a more accurate timeline for when the plant would stop burning coal, which they claim is polluting the air and endangering residents. (Taken by surprise, Gutierrez agreed at the time to a visit, but in the months that followed, organizers were told by his staff that he was too busy. Nearly one years after the meeting, he would finally visit.) "It is impeding the development of the lakefront," Shanley-Roberts told me, pointing to the smoke stacks in the distance.*

As the 1980s, '90s, and early 2000s marched on, government agencies and businesses spent millions cleaning up PCBs from the motor plant. Several times officials celebrated partial clean-ups only to discover more contamination. In August of 1993, Environmental Protection Agency officials celebrated one particular clean-up with a yacht tour and a cake decorated with a map of the clean-up site. But eventually, as seemed to always be the case, they found more pollution. Years later, in February of 2010, then-Waukegan Mayor Robert Sabonjian took a sledgehammer to the site of the contamination, saying, "Next year, when you stand here, you'll see the whole lakefront for the first time in generations."

Finally, in 2014, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn declared the $150 million clean-up finished and the EPA removed the site from a list of heavily polluted sites in the Great Lakes region. At the time, newly elected Waukegan Mayor Wayne Motley declared the era of industrial pollution over and said the city was open to new development. "Years ago, Waukegan was supposed to be the Riviera of the Midwest," he told the Chicago Tribune, adding that, "We hope that that does come to pass. We look to build hotels along the lakefront, condominiums, and … destination locations." All the while, the Waukegan energy plant kept on burning coal, buoying the economy and belching emissions into the air.

section-break (1) 2

Motley was elected in 2013, and for much of his time in office, Clean Power Lake County had been pressuring him to request a transition plan from NRG Energy as part of the city's redevelopment.

The community of Waukegan has been debating for years what redevelopment of it's industrial lakefront, a one-time home to powerful factories that now sit abandoned, would look like, but the end of the clean-up made those discussions suddenly become far more pressing. More Industry? Condos? Parks? Casinos?

In July of 2015, the city won a $60,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to hire a consulting firm, Edgewater Resources, to recommend strategies for redeveloping the harbor, which includes the coal plant on the Northside.

"Everyone has their own fiefdom. There is a lack of collaboration because everyone is trying to be the king of the hill."

Edgewater Resources released its suggestions in 2015, calling for mixed-use redevelopment, new homes, restaurants, outdoor markets, and cafes. The company suggested turning "Waukegan's former weakness (industrial contamination) into a strength by using the story of clean-up and reuse to create a uniquely sustainable new community on the waterfront."

The Edgewater consultants advised city officials to transition the plant away from burning coal, according to Alderman David Villalobos; that still has yet to happen. "When we are trying to sell Waukegan's future, we are trying to sell entertainment, attraction, a destination where people can go and be entertained and enjoy the waterfront," said Villalobos, who is also a member of the environmental group. "The coal plant hinders that story. It doesn't have a future with the overall ideas of what the lakefront can be."

Back in May of 2016, Donald Trump hadn't yet declared his candidacy to run for the highest office of the land with a pledge to revive coal. The Waukegan environmentalists wanted—as they still want—a long-term retirement plan for the coal plant, and advocated for policies that would develop energy production through wind and solar farms to support the workforce and tax base that would be lost if the coal plant closed. It's a part of the Sierra Club's national campaign to close coal-fired power plants, called Beyond Coal. So far, Motley's been non-committal about the future of the plant, saying it's in compliance and pollution is better than before. "When I was young I'd wake up in the morning and there'd be black soot all over our cars and our laundry but that was many, many years ago," he told Chicago Tonight.

At the time Shanley-Roberts was driving me around Waukegan, Motley was preparing for an upcoming re-election in a few months. First, Motley would face off against Alderman Sam Cunningham in the Democratic primary, a battle of Waukegan's old guard. Both men are powerful leaders who have spent decades inside city's political machine.

Waukegan is notorious for a rough brand of politics, and as the election neared, Clean Power Lake County organizers decided they wanted an energy ally in the next mayor. The group put its weight behind Lisa May, an independent alderman with widespread grassroots support. She was preparing to face the winner of Motley v. Cunningham in the general election.

"Everyone has their own fiefdom. There is a lack of collaboration because everyone is trying to be the king of the hill. All of the political favoritism, the cronyism, the nepotism, the pay-to-play," May told me at one point. And in the end, it was a battle of politics, in which the environment was a mere chip to be played.

section-break (1) 2

For most of the 20th century, coal-fired power plants provided electricity to around 50 percent of the country. But since 2005, coal's position at the top of the energy production pyramid has been steadily declining; coal power amounts to less than 34 percent of Americans' electricity. The country is flush with natural gas and coal's being outcompeted. And, in spite of any political promises, industry experts say coal won't make a comeback.

In 2012, in nearby Chicago, two coal plants were shuttered amid market and community pressure; likewise plants around the country continue to close. Others—including some in NRG's fleet—are being converted to burn gas. That's one reason environmentalists in Waukegan argued for the NRG plant's closure: They say it's no longer competitive with gas and even some renewables, a claim the company refutes.

Celeste Flores is an organizer with Clean Power Lake County who grew up near Waukegan. She's a central figure in the environmental group, which supported Lisa May, a local politician and a longtime ally of the group's efforts who entered the race in June of 2016 as an independent candidate. Clean Power Lake County's goal was an ambitious one: "We are going to turn this into a campaign issue," Flores declared proudly.

For Flores, it's about more than economics—it's about the health of the community and environment in Waukegan. Once a white, working-class suburb, Waukegan is now home to many immigrants from South and Central America. She is a first generation American; both her parents are from Mexico. She's worried about what she calls the little "Latino bubble" breathing in the plant's pollution. Within three miles of the site, 57 percent of people identify as Latino, and 78 percent as a minority of some kind. In these neighborhoods, 26,000 people live below the poverty line, according to federal census information.

People walk out to the Waukegan beach. The red brick coal plant is operated by NRG Energy.

People walk out to the Waukegan beach. The red brick coal plant is operated by NRG Energy.

Flores and the Sierra Club often point to the fact that, in the Chicagolands and beyond—from across the border north in Wisconsin, all the way south down Lake Michigan to Gary—nearly 350 die every year and almost 600 suffer heart attacks from exposure to emissions, according to a report by Boston's Clean Air Task Force. Other studies have shown that living near a coal plant increases risk of cancer and cardiac disease and is known to exacerbate asthma and other respiratory diseases. The Environmental Law and Policy Center conducted a study in 2010 that linked more than $80 million in health-related damages to emissions from the Waukegan plant.

David Gaier, an NRG company spokesperson, said that the company is doing what it can to make a plant that's necessary for energy production run with as little emissions as is possible. "What we've done is make the plant as clean as humanly possible," he said.

Responding to the charge that vulnerable populations are most affected by the emissions, Gaier said that's "simply a factor of socio-economics" that has no connection to the plant. He added that the company has spent a lot of money on upgrades. NRG shelled out $100 million in 2015 to install scrubbers and other environmental controls at the Waukegan plant.

"We made an announcement in August of 2014 that we would invest half a billion to clean-up and modernize the Illinois fleet," Gaier said. "We've done exactly what we've promised."

Gaier said that emissions from the Waukegan coal plant have steadily declined since 2010. That's true: The plant now emits 1.1 metric tons of CO2, a decrease of over 50 percent since 2010. But that drop in emissions is not entirely due to new technology: The plant is simple burning half as much coal as it did in 2013, according to the United States Energy Information Administration.

NRG Energy is one of America's biggest independent energy providers. In 2014, the company's chief executive officer, David Crane, wrote a letter to shareholders arguing that the company needed to transition from brown to green—exactly what Waukegan organizers had asked for—and become a leader in clean energy nationally. But the board baulked on the vision and he was eventually fired. The company is now scaling back its clean energy portfolio in some places.

"We are in the business of running power plants," Gaier said. "So, we know what is economic. If the Waukegan plant was not economic, we would close it. It is economic."

section-break (1) 2

The Sierra Club is providing training, on-the-ground organizers, and financial support to Clean Power Lake County's effort, as part of its national campaign to close as many coal-fired power plants as possible. "In Waukegan, the public-health risk is significant," said Sierra Club Illinois' Christine Nannicelli. "Even with the latest pollution control upgrades that NRG has finally done, as required to under state and federal law, it is still the largest source of air and water pollution in the county."

The environmentalists forced clean energy into the limelight. But the group hasn't only been focused on shuttering the plant. They were a part of a coalition that lobbied the Illinois General Assembly to pass a massive energy bill in December of 2016 that propped-up some aging nuclear plants while funneling resources into clean-energy initiatives. As a result, Illinois' renewable energy target remains at 25 percent of all electricity by 2025, but, unlike before, that power must come from solar and wind installations in the state. The energy bill also includes other clean energy programs including for low-income communities like Waukegan.

The bill's passage was seen as a big win for Clean Power Lake County and its ilk. Some claimed it would create over 30,000 new jobs in the clean energy sector. The organizers work seemed to be paying off. They were even profiled on the Emmy Award-winning documentary series Years of Living Dangerously.

With the uncertain future of energy politics in Waukegan swirling, Clean Power Lake County was gearing for a fight.

In a February of 2017 Democratic primary, Motley squared off against Sam Cunningham, who'd lost to Motley in a previous mayoral race by a handful of votes. The winner would face the environmentalists' choice, Lisa May, in the April general election. Heavily criticized for allegedly mishandling a city demolition project, Motley lost in February his primary bid to Cunningham (Motley maintains that he's recruited developers and brought in badly needed economic development), setting up a historic showdown in April against May. He had the chance to become the first African-American mayor of Waukegan; May, the first woman to hold that office.

Clean Power Lake County remained mostly on the sidelines during the primary, but sprang to action for the general election. On March 4th, the group promoted a kickoff event for May's campaign. Dozens of people gathered at a local bar to hear a fiery speech from May.

After her speech at the bar, May sat at a table drinking a tall pint. She claimed the coal plant would be a key issue. "No one gave it much thought until Clean Power Lake County," she said. "I've lived by the coal plant my whole life. It's been a part of the fabric of Waukegan forever. Most of us never thought about it. Clean Power Lake County awakened this giant, and god bless them."

section-break (1) 2

Cunningham, a longtime figure in Waukegan politics with deep ties, must walk a fine line. Motley was ousted amid accusations of old-school politics, and Waukegan voters are focused on the future of the city's lakefront. An alderman for many years, Cunningham has publicly supported Clean Power Lake County—at least when it aligns with his own goals. "I will have a five- or 10-year plan for the coal plant," he said at one point on the campaign trail. "I can make sure that happens."

By late March, the election had run off the rails. Waukegan residents would find attack fliers tucked under the windshield wipers of their cars. One read: "Who really is Lisa May?" and featured a laundry list of insults. It accused her of being a pro-Trump conservative, a heavy (and false) charge in this democratic town. Another attack, a mailer issued by the Waukegan Democratic Organization, claimed May's sole economic ambition was shuttering the power plant. May responded in turn on her website, accusing Cunningham of colluding with the gambling industry.

A few days before the election, Villalobos spoke out against the political attacks on the floor of the City Council. "My mailbox has been getting inundated with the negative campaign going on," he said. "Alderman Cunningham and Alderman May are colleagues too, so to build a divisive campaign, it builds a gap between them."

Meanwhile, Clean Power Lake County organizers spread out across the city for get-out-the-vote, knocking on doors on May's behalf. The Sierra Club even shipped in two political heavyweights to support the group—its executive director Michael Brune and Jon Carson, the top person at Organizing for Action, the political group that sprung from Barack Obama's campaign.

"If the Waukegan plant was not economic, we would close it."

Still, Cunningham was plenty confident about his election prospects come election day. Stepping out of a car in front of his campaign headquarters, he said he and his campaign staffers were "feeling good about our plan." But weeks of hard campaigning had seen Cunningham's commitment to the environmentalists' cause waver. On election day, he'd nearly reversed his position: "We have so many other things that—I don't say are a higher priority—but that need to be addressed first," he said.

"What will always surface within any election, particularly in Waukegan, there will be outside influence that will merge into either campaign," Cunningham told me. "For some aspects of it, it was politics. For the most part, I like to think Lisa and myself stayed on focus on our voters."

Just a few miles across the city, May seemed exhausted. She'd spent her day out in front of a local middle school, greeting voters as they walked in to cast a ballot.

Still, she acknowledged on that afternoon that local politics—what she calls the Waukegan Way—stole the microphone. "We haven't talked about the retiring of the coal plant as much as we'd hoped for," she said, "but that's OK, it's a part of our agenda." Shortly after, she was whisked away by an aide to another stop.

The early returns were tight, but by 10 p.m. it was clear Sam Cunningham would be the next mayor. In an emotional speech, May conceded.

It was an emotional loss for Clean Power Lake County members, for sure. The group spent a lot of political capital on May. But a few weeks later Flores said the group is learning about the peaks and valleys of community organizing. For Cunningham's first city council meeting as mayor, the environmentalists showed up in droves. They pressed him on the plant, and the new mayor committed to organizing a committee to consider its future.

But, he also said he'd invite NRG Energy to be on the committee, which maintains that the plant will remain open and burning coal. Company spokesperson Gaier said the idea that the plant can be transitioned into some form of renewable energy is "not based in reality."

"You cannot transition a steam boiler powered by coal to wind or solar. It's different technologies. It's like comparing a car to a shoe," he said, adding that, while the company looked at converting the plant to natural gas, it ultimately proved too costly. For now, at least.

This story was produced in partnership with Latino USA, with generous support from the Social Justice News Nexus at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

*Update — June 14th, 2017: This article has been updated to reflect the details surrounding Gutierrez's visit to Waukegan.