LITTLE VILLAGE — Walking door to door for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization in the late 1990s, Kimberly Wasserman Nieto began to notice a disturbing pattern of sickness in the neighborhood children.
That pattern, and her own son’s asthma, led her to look upward at the pollution produced by the two Midwest Generation coal plants in the area.
Her work over the last 15 years ultimately led to the shutdown of those Little Village and Pilsen plants in August. On Monday, Wasserman Nieto — now the executive director at the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization — was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, a $150,000 award that recognizes efforts by grassroots leaders.
Wasserman Nieto was in San Francisco Monday to receive the award.
“It’s been craziness, I’m not gonna lie. It’s definitely not something that I’m used to, but I’m very honored,” she said.
Wasserman Nieto said she plans to donate part of the prize money to the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and use the rest to finish college, something she had put on hold after her son was born.
At the time Wasserman Nieto began her campaign in the late '90s, she said the coal plants were extremely unregulated, especially with regard to safety standards that took into account area residents.
“We asked, what happens when you mix this stuff together in the air? We’re not just breathing in this one industry, we’re breathing in all these industries put together,” she said. “How they could run a business like that and have such an effect on a community … was astounding to us.”
In addition to the $150,000, each of the six Goldman Prize winners receives a bronze sculpture called the Ouroboros — which depicts a serpent biting its tail, a symbol of nature’s power of renewal.