A View From the Cheap Seats

October 7, 2009

Courage Not Rhetoric



A couple of weeks ago, Keep Chicago Beautiful, Inc. held their 22nd annual leadership awards luncheon at the downtown Four Seasons Hotel. That luncheon, held on September 23, was the scene of most remarkable occurrence.

A bit of background about Keep Chicago Beautiful first. The organization has been around for a long time. Its mission is to promote conservation, recycling and other good environmental practices. They describe what they want people to do thus:

“Using less stuff. Recycling, composting, and reusing things. Sending the rest to landfills. Preventing litter. Spiffing up our neighborhoods. Find out how you can be “part of the solution, not part of the pollution.”

This is, in other words, an environmental group, but not of the radical ‘burn down homes’ or ‘knock down radio towers’ variety. Its members work hard, establishing teacher education programs, promoting recycling and clean energy, among other activities.

Each year, at their awards luncheon, Keep Chicago Beautiful hands out awards to members of the community who have been instrumental in furthering their mission. Among those awards this year was the organization’s inaugural “Corporate Partnership Leadership Award”, which was given to a company that few members of the public or media would associate with environmental stewardship: Midwest Generation.

That’s right, Midwest Generation, the company that operates a legion of coal-fired power plants in the state of Illinois. The company that the Trib’s Mikey Hawthorne and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan treat as a pariah at every opportunity. The company whose two coal-fired power plants located within the borders of the city of Chicago, Crawford Station and Fisk Station, are routinely described as a poisonous blight on the neighborhoods in which they are located. That Midwest Generation.

How could this happen? How could a company that Hawthorne slammed for taking advantage of the supposed “polluters paradise” that he believes Illinois to be win an award from an established and respected environmental group? Has the world gone mad?

Actually, the world got a little more sane on September 23, and Keep Chicago Beautiful should be saluted for acknowledging the enormous effort, both in terms of resources and investments, that Midwest Generation has made to improve the environment in Illinois, while simultaneously fulfilling its primary mission of providing inexpensive, reliable power to the state’s citizens.

Joyce Kagan Charmatz, the Founder and President of Keep Chicago Beautiful, hit the nail square on the head when she presented the award. Charmatz described how Midwest Generation has significantly reduced emissions of air pollutants like nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter at its plants. She praised Midwest Generation for making a substantial investment in wind energy and other environmentally friendly projects.

That took some guts. In a world where industry is always the enemy, even when they’re not, Charmatz and Keep Chicago Beautiful stood up and said “no”, they said that sometimes corporate America can be a valuable partner and that we should recognize and encourage such efforts. Hats off to Joyce Kagan Charmatz and Keep Chicago Beautiful. Your humble correspondent and the company I work for have been a patron of Keep Chicago Beautiful for some years now. This courageous act, this simple statement of truth, has earned my loyalty for a long time to come.

For the fact is that Midwest Generation has indeed made huge investments in state-of-the-art control technology that has massively reduced the amount of pollution discharged from the smokestacks of its coal-fired power plants. You don’t have to take my word for that. All you have to do is examine the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s annual reports. Those reports detail the incredible reductions in air pollution that Midwest Generation has achieved over the years.

The fact is that Midwest Generation and its partner, Midwest Wind Energy, have made a huge investment in wind farms in this state. The fact is that the two power plants the City of Chicago wants so desperately to close, Crawford and Fisk, have very little direct impact on the neighborhoods in which they are located. The effects of automobile traffic and transient air pollution are far more important than the paltry contribution that those plants make on the Pilsen and southwest side neighborhoods in which they are located.

Unfortunately, Michael Hawthrone won’t report any of those facts, much less that Midwest Generation was honored by an environmental group. Nor will those facts modify Lisa Madigan’s playbook one bit. Midwest Generation is a convenient target, so the facts be damned.

It often seems that corporate America is terribly naïve when it comes to environmental groups. Time and again, corporations try to assuage such groups through donations and paying for environmentally-friendly projects. Those efforts and expenditures, more often than not, go unrecognized and unappreciated. No matter what corporations do, no matter how much they invest to try to accomplish some good, the same angry cast of characters still scream for their scalps.

Keep Chicago Beautiful bucked the trend and they should be saluted for it. Here’s hoping that the rest of corporate America learns a lesson from this episode. If they want to continue to do good, corporate America should keep supporting those organizations with the courage to recognize their efforts and they should ignore those who only want to use them as a target in order to raise funds.


1 Comment »

  1. Don’t tell the Goracle. His eenie, teenie little head may explode!

    Comment by Wild Bill — October 14, 2009 @ 1:56 pm | Reply

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