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Julio Guzman is a recent college graduate, and he’s recently returned home to Waukegan, Illinois. He loves the city, and he wants to be involved. For him, that means fighting for clean energy. He and a group of environmentalists have been tussling with local officials over the future of a coal-fired power plant.

“It is hardly a fight to close the coal plant,” he said. “That is the trajectory of coal in the U.S. It will close itself. We want to be proactive and have a plan when that does happen.”

Guzman is up against NRG Energy, one of America’s biggest independent energy providers. The company operates the plant in Waukegan. Guzman and a group of environmentalists want it to stop burning fossil fuel, saying it’s dirty and harmful. It’s best to transition now.

The company says it’s in compliance and the plant is profitable, and a coal plant can’t just transform into a solar farm. A company spokesperson said: “It’s like comparing a car to a shoe. They are two different things.”

Waukegan, a short drive from Chicago on Lake Michigan, is no stranger to environmental fights. In the 1970s, it was discovered that PCB-containing hydraulic fluid had leaked out of a boat motor manufacturing plant and contaminated a local harbor. It had the highest concentrations of the pollutant anywhere in the world.

The city is just now turning the corner after decades of cleanups. During which many people immigrated to Waukegan from Mexico, Honduras and other places in Central America. Guzman and others want a fresh start for the city and have been pressuring Mayor Wayne Motley to tip the scale.

Waukegan is also known for a brand of bare-knuckle politics. Some call it the Waukegan Way. With Mayor Wayne Motley up for re-election, environmentalists have thrown their weight behind his competitor, Lisa May, an alderman. They say the coal plant’s future and clean energy are too important.

Celeste Flores, an organizer, says: “We will turn this into a campaign issue.”

Reporter Kevin Stark brings Latino USA the story of three Latino environmental activists who dived headlong into the bare-knuckle world of Waukegan politics.

This project was supported by the Social Justice News Nexus at the Medill School of Journalism.

Featured Image: Kevin Stark