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The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency
Celebrates
Hispanic Heritage Month!

A Message from IEPA Director Lisa Bonnett:

"Illinois’ strength is its diversity and welcoming spirit," said Lisa Bonnett, Director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. "This month, our agency is not only honoring the many positive contributions Hispanics have made to our state, we are strengthening our efforts to ensure that our state is a leader in environmental justice and that all Illinoisans, regardless of background, are able to benefit from a vibrant and protected environment now and in the future."

Please join me and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, along with our friends in environmental protection, in celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month.

Origins of Hispanic Heritage Month

Each year, Americans observe National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15, by celebrating the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. The observation started in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon Johnson and was expanded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to cover a 30-day period starting on September 15 and ending on October 15. It was enacted into law on August 17, 1988. The day of September 15 is significant because it is the anniversary of independence for Latin American countries Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. In addition, Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on September 16 and September18, respectively. Also, Columbus Day or Día de la Raza, which is October 12, falls within this 30 day period.

Notable Hispanics in Environmental Protection

Dr. Ellen Ochoa first Hispanic-American woman in space

Dr. Ellen Ochoa is a veteran of three NASA Space Shuttle flights. She has logged over 719 hours in space, traveling four million miles in one mission alone!

Before NASA selected Ellen to become an astronaut, Ellen proved herself on Earth by getting a doctorate degree in electrical engineering and co-inventing three patents for optical engineering systems.

Born in southern California in 1958, Ellen was interested in space exploration as a girl. NASA hired its first women astronauts when she was studying physics in college in the 1970’s. Ellen saw the astronaut program as a way of combining her interest in research and engineering with space exploration. She became an astronaut in 1991.

In April, 1993, Ellen became the first Hispanic-American woman in space. As a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, mission STS-56, she deployed and captured a research satellite used for the study of the sun. During the nine-day mission, she also took part in studies of Earth’s atmosphere and the effect of the sun on Earth’s climate and environment. In November 1994, Ellen was also payload commander aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis for mission STS-66.

Ellen spent a number of years working on the development of the International Space Station. In May and June 1999, Ellen flew aboard the Discovery, mission STS-96, which became the first Space Shuttle to actually dock with the Space Station. On board the Space Shuttle were supplies to be used by the first crews living and working on the Space Station. Working 200 miles above the Earth, Ellen operated a robot arm that helped transfer four tons of clothing, computers, and medical equipment from one ship to the other. (scholastic.com)

Mario Molina, 1995 Nobel Prize for Chemistry Winner

When Mario Molina was a young boy living in Mexico City, he loved science so much that he turned one of the rooms in his family’s house into a lab. He spent hours there playing with chemistry sets. Little did he dream as a boy that one day he would make discoveries that would help protect the world’s atmosphere, and he would become famous.

While he was fascinated by chemicals, Molina knew as a young man that chemicals can be dangerous, too. In his lab as a graduate student, he began to investigate "chlorofluorocarbons" — known as CFCs — a group of chemicals used in spray cans, air conditioners, and other items you would find in any house. He and Professor Sherwood Rowland discovered that when these gases enter the atmosphere, they break apart. The chlorine atoms from them were destroying part of the ozone layer. This layer filters out most of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays, protecting life on earth.

Few paid attention to the scientists’ discoveries at first, and others wouldn’t believe them. Then in 1984, scientists found a huge hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. Molina, Rowland, and another scientist, Paul Crutzen, showed how and why the CFC gases were eating up the ozone layer. People knew something had to be done. In 1987, countries all over the world agreed to ban the use of CFCs within a certain time period. Other chemicals still threaten the ozone layer. It will take some time to eliminate all of them and for the ozone layer to mend itself.

In 1995, Molina and the other two scientists won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discoveries. Molina donated $200,000 of his Nobel Prize winnings to help young scientists around the world do research on the environment. Now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, Molina teaches others who want to become scientists. He believes that scientists and other people all over the world will have to work hard together to save our environment. (scholastic.com)

Kimberly Wasserman, Chairperson of the Illinois Governor’s Commission on Environmental Justice, 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize Winner, Executive Director of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization

Chicago’s southwest side was home to two of the nation’s oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants – the Fisk and Crawford plants, owned by Midwest Generation. Just a few hundred feet away from the Crawford plant is the vibrant and diverse community of Little Village, a small but densely populated neighborhood of some 100,000 residents, mostly Latino families and children.

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.

Meanwhile, residents were suffering high rates of asthma, bronchitis, and a slew of other respiratory illnesses. In fact, a Harvard study linked more than 40 premature deaths, 550 emergency room visits and 2,800 asthma attacks every year to the toxic emissions from the two plants, with children being the most vulnerable to the plants’ pollution. Residents would rely on nebulizers and oxygen tanks to help them breathe; parents who worried about asthma attacks would keep children from going outside to play. Thousands stayed home from school or missed work every year because they were sick, resulting in educational and economic losses.

Motivation

Among these residents was Kimberly Wasserman, a Chicana born and raised in Little Village who lived in a house not a mile away from the Crawford plant. In 1998, then a single mother, she rushed her 3-month-old baby to the hospital when he started gasping for air. According to the doctors, her son had suffered an asthma attack, which she later found out, had been triggered by environmental pollution.

Fired up from this experience, the community organizer for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) began going to door to door with her baby in tow, talking to families in the neighborhood who were dealing with similar problems. She explained how their health problems were stemming from the coal plants and convinced parents – some of whom were undocumented immigrants afraid to speak up – that they had a right to live and raise their children in a neighborhood free from toxic pollution.

Impact

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.

After a long stall in Chicago politics, whose leaders had long supported the coal industry, the communities’ efforts to shut down the plants gained new momentum in 2011 with the creation of the Chicago Clean Power Coalition, the election of a new mayor and a new class of aldermen on the City Council.

The coalition pushed efforts to build momentum for the Clean Power Ordinance among local policymakers, and the measure received support from 35 aldermen and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Faced with expensive requirements to upgrade its pollution controls and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Midwest announced it would shut down the Crawford and Fisk plants.

The coal power plants closed ahead of schedule in the fall of 2012, and LVEJO, in partnership with a community organization in nearby Pilsen, is negotiating a Community Benefits Agreement. The agreement prohibits any fossil fuel industry from operating on the property, and entitles residents to meet the potential new owners, who will be required to present their plans for the site to the community.

Wasserman is also training the next generation of organizers to lead the community in transforming old industrial sites in Little Village into parks and open spaces such as skate parks, soccer fields, and picnic sites where residents can exercise and enjoy the fresh air. Her vision for these spaces is to serve as a community "front porch," where residents get together to discuss ways to continue improving the neighborhood. (http://www.goldmanprize.org/recipient/kimberly-wasserman)

Further Information

HIspanic Heritage

Resources
Literature
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