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Bridgeport, Chinatown, McKinley Park

Amid Concerns Over Dust, Controversial McKinley Park Asphalt Plant Applies For EPA Permit Again

The IEPA denied its application in February, and residents like Kate Moser are growing increasingly concerned about the dust blowing off of asphalt trucks leaving the plant.

MAT Asphalt is located at 2055 W. Pershing Road in McKinley Park.
Pascal Sabino
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MCKINLEY PARK — Before MAT Asphalt moved into McKinley Park in 2018, its owners promised to cover their dust-spewing trucks and not disrupt the daily lives of residents.

So far, not so good, according to neighbors. And now the asphalt plant has re-submitted an application for a five-year pollution permit after the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency denied its first application in February.

The IEPA denied McKinley Park-based MAT Asphalt’s application after estimating the plant had the potential to emit more than 10 times the acceptable amount of toxic particulate matter, records show. But plant operators now say that it is eligible for a permit because an analysis submitted to the IEPA miscalculated figures to be higher than they actually are.

MAT Asphalt, which officially opened in April 2018 at 2055 W. Pershing Road on the south end of McKinley Park’s namesake 72-acre park, submitted the latest application on March 12. It’s current one-year construction permit expires in July.

Meanwhile, residents like Kate Moser, who lives a block away from the plant, are growing increasingly concerned that the dust blowing off of asphalt trucks leaving the plant could be harming her family. People in the neighborhood have filed complaints with the city related to the truck traffic, but to no avail.

“We have a speed bump right in front of our house. So every time one comes by, I know it because the house shakes,” Moser said of the trucks carrying asphalt past her home in the 3800 block of Winchester Avenue. “You look out the window, and it’s an open container of asphalt. It’s not even covered with a tarp, which again, we were told would happen. It’s just an open container driving down the street blowing nasty particulate into the air in our yard.”

‘Fugitive’ pollution

When MAT Asphalt Plant manager Joe Haughey initially filed for the five-year federally enforceable state operating permit, the application proposed that the facilities would not emit more than 21.93 tons of particulate annually.

But documents provided by the asphalt manufacturer show that the proposed pollution cap did not take into account what’s known as fugitive particulate matter — hazardous fine dust that becomes trapped in the air without being emitted through a vent or exhaust stream. In the application, MAT Asphalt noted that most of its fugitive particulate comes from transporting the asphalt away from the factory — including the trucks that rumble down Moser’s residential street.

According to the February application, the dust rolling off of storage piles and bellowing out of distribution trucks accumulates to up to 233.76 tons per year. That is more than 10 times the proposed limit, and when combined with the other sources of particulate, it puts MAT Asphalt beyond the 250 ton threshold allowed by under the permit.

This type of ambient particle pollution — the type that can linger in exposed air — has been associated with health impacts ranging from lung disease to cancer, with children and older adults facing the greatest risks, according to the EPA.

Weeks after its first shot at the permit, MAT Asphalt now claims that its initial pollution estimates were miscalculated, and sent in new statistics that would allow the factory to qualify for the permit.

According to documents responding to the permit denial, the new calculations put total particulate emissions at 117.72 tons per year — magnitudes beyond the initially proposed amount of pollution under the permit, but still below the federal limit.

Even with particulate levels below the limit, neighbors worry that they could still be exposed to health hazards because of the dust from the heavy truck traffic and the burning asphalt in the air.

“The biggest problem is the truck traffic and just the smell, but obviously, what’s underneath all of that is worse, which is carcinogens in the air,” Moser said.

Other residents say that MAT Asphalt has broken a series of promises the plant made to protect the community from the particulate matter.

Broken promises?

Lito Rodriguez said that when the plant was built three blocks from his home on 38th and Honore Street, he was assured that the company would build dust barriers along Damen Avenue, divert truck traffic away from residential roads, and keep asphalt bins covered to stop the particulate from reaching the nearby community.

“One thing that they had promised us …was that every truck was supposed to be covered before they left the plants, which is completely untrue,” Rodriguez said. “I would say at least half of the trucks were are not covered.”

Liliana Escarpita, a spokesperson for Ald. George Cardenas, who represents the 12th Ward where the plant is located, said that the office has also received complaints about the asphalt trucks driving on residential streets — streets the trucks shouldn’t be on. The alderman sent a staff member to monitor the truck traffic because of the complaints, the staffer said.

They’ve also fielded complaints about the smell of asphalt fumes near the plant, Escarpita said.

In order to be eligible for the five-year pollution permit, factories are required to commit to a mandatory Fugitive Dust Control Plan of best-practices for minimizing exposure to particulate matter in the surrounding area. According to the plan, the main strategy for dust suppression is wetting the asphalt at least once a week to prevent particles from becoming airborne.

But residents don’t think the plant has done its due diligence in protecting the neighborhood, especially given its location to McKinley Park’s namesake park.

“We spend a lot of time in the park on the playground walking through and also at the pool in the summer and the pool is also adjacent to Pershing… you can see sometimes the smokestacks spewing pollution while you’re swimming,” said Moser, who has young children. On the same block as the factory is Horizon Science Academy, a K-8th charter school serving the neighborhood.

MAT Asphalt Plant manager Haughey or the consultants working on the application did not respond to questions.

In 2018, members of the surrounding community came together to form Neighbors for Environmental Justice (N4EJ) to try and stop the asphalt plant from operating at its current location. The grassroots organization alleged the IEPA, MAT Asphalt, Alderman Cardenas, and the City of Chicago all failed to notify the community of the prospective industrial development when MAT Asphalt initially applied for a 1-year construction permit to build the plant in 2017.

Cardenas and community members both say they were not notified until after the 90-day window for public comment on the permit was closed.

“We should have been afforded various opportunities to get involved in the permit, to get notification about the permit,” said N4EJ organizer Robert Beedle, noting that the Brighton Park, New City, Bridgeport and McKinley Park neighborhoods are home to a majority minority population — 54 percent of residents are Hispanic, 21 percent are Asian and 7 percent are African-American, according to American Community Survey estimates. About 23.3 percent of residents living in the area are below the poverty line, data shows.

“We could have requested a hearing or meeting before the permit was issued. There were many ways we could have gotten involved on the city level, and on the state level before the permit was issued, but because no one ever knew about it, we never had an opportunity to get involved.”

If the IEPA grants a draft permit to the factory, N4EJ plans to call for a public hearing to testify that MAT Asphalt is unable to operate within the limits of its permit on grounds of the odor nuisances that residents have reported to their alderman, to the IEPA and the Chicago Department of Public Health. Upon granting the draft permit, regulators would open a 90-day comment window that would allow residents to appeal the decision.

“We are going to provide testimony and evidence in the light of day in a public meeting to the government as to why we feel that the plan is not going to be able to meet the permit requirements based on that location,” Beedle said. “That the plant is going to have disproportionate impacts on us as a community.”

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