I thought that the customer was always right. Maybe the motto doesn’t apply if a customer’s desire to remain healthy is outweighed by a company’s desire to stay wealthy.

For years, customers of the energy produced at Chicago’s two coal-burning power plants have lobbied and demonstrated for reduced emissions. The loudest cries have come from Latino residents who live near the Crawford and Fisk power plants, which are located in the city’s Little Village and Pilsen neighborhoods, respectively.

But the customers’ demands have largely gone unmet. As Kari Lydersen documents in the story “Toxic Neighbor,” found in this issue of The Chicago Reporter, neighborhood activists and researchers claim that these two power plants are responsible for dozens of premature deaths, hundreds of asthma attacks and thousands of emergency-room visits each year.

Officials at Midwest Generation, the company that owns and operates the two plants, challenge that research. In addition, the company says that it has already dramatically cut emissions at its facilities throughout Illinois. An agreement with the state calls for even further measures to control emissions, but the company says those efforts may prove too costly. It might make more sense to simply close the plants, one company official said.

Those improvements are said to cost billions of dollars, so maybe the company isn’t just blowing smoke. But if power plant owners and the utilities that buy energy from them in Illinois are looking for money to reduce emissions, I know of an easy way for them to find some–” campaign contributions.

Since 1999, Midwest Generation, along with other energy producers like Ameren and Dynegy, and the utility Commonwealth Edison have contributed more than $6 million to state and local political committees in Illinois. In addition, employees of these companies have contributed an additional $600,000 during that time. On the federal side, just in the 2007-2008 election cycle, employees of these companies contributed another $320,000 to federal campaign committees.

Some of these folks are pretty serious about it. Most of the companies, including Ameren, Commonwealth Edison, Dynegy and Exelon, have registered political action committees. Several employees contributed to those PACs, apparently through payroll deductions, more than 100 times. And some of those contributions came from out-of-state employees in Missouri, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Visit chicagoreporter.com for a detailed list of the contributors, the contributions and the political campaigns receiving the money.

No one knows for sure if that money will buy these energy companies any good will in Springfield or Washington, D.C., but spreading some of that money around to help preserve clean air could only help boost their image–”and potentially save lives–”in the neighborhoods surrounding their facilities. Isn’t that worth money, too?

Alden Loury

Alden K. Loury

Alden is the senior editor of WBEZ's race, class and communities desk. Previously, he served as the director of research and evaluation for the Metropolitan Planning Council, investigator and later as...