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South Chicago, East Side

This Earth Day, Fight To Save The Southeast Side From Pollution, Advocates Urge: ‘This Neighborhood Is A Sacrifice Zone’

Neighbors are engaged in two fights — one to stop the expansion of a waste facility and another to keep a metal shredder from moving to their neighborhood.

Chicago South East Side Coalition To Ban Petcoke
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SOUTH CHICAGO — Earth Day is typically a time for park and riverfront cleanups, but with the coronavirus crisis, environmental advocates are urging people to fight pollution from their homes instead.

Activists are asking Chicagoans to step up and fight for residents on the city’s Southeast Side — an area long saddled with poor air quality and pollution caused by its industrial plants, with more pollution coming. Neighbors there are engaged in two fights — one to stop the expansion of a waste facility and another to keep a metal shredder from moving to their neighborhood.

Friends of the Parks canceled their usual large park cleanups typically planned for Earth Day. Instead, the group is urging residents to contact Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Ald. Susan Sadowski Garza (10th) to speak out against a 25-foot hill of waste the Army Corps of Engineers wants to bring to the shore of Lake Michigan, executive director Juanita Irizarry said.

The Army Corps of Engineers wants to expand its contaminated disposal facility on the shore of Lake Michigan at the Calumet River in the 10th Ward, Irizarry said. The facility currently processes dredge from the bottom of the Chicago Area Waterways System, which includes Calumet Harbor and River; the Calumet-Saganashkee (Cal-Sag) Channel; Chicago Harbor; Chicago River; the South Branch of the Chicago River; and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. 

“We agree with Southeast Side advocates that do not want the site to be in the 10th Ward at all. We agree that the community should not have to keep taking all of our pollutants The site as it is is already leaking toxins into Lake Michigan … even if they don’t expand, it needs to go,” Irizarry said.

Friends of the Park has a letter on its website people can send to elected officials in opposition to the site’s expansion.

Friends of the Parks and The Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke are also trying to keep scrap-metal shredder General Iron from moving to the area from Lincoln Park. 

The Army Corps of Engineers has worked to evaluate potential sites to hold dredged materials from the Calumet River and Harbor since 2015, as the current site is projected to reach capacity in 2022, City of Chicago spokesperson Hali Levandoski said.

A community engagement process, which included the alderman and residents, Levandoski said, was launched to identify sites.

“We are now in the process of finalizing our review and performing the necessary due diligence,” she said.

Credit: Robin Amer/DNAinfo
In 2015, Southeast Environmental Taskforce executive director Peggy Salazar holds up a sooty hand after palming a garage door across the street from the area’s last remaining petcoke storage facility.

After this month’s demolition of the old Crawford Coal smokestack that blanketed Little Village with a cloud of thick dust, Lincoln Park residents began calling on Mayor Lightfoot to shut down metal scrapper General Iron. While that fight continues, General Iron is planning to move to to the East Side at the end of this year— a move Gina Ramirez, co-chair of The Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, said is a slap in the face to area residents.

“It’s moving from a wealthy white community to a low-income minority community, so it’s enriching the North Side community at the expense of the residents of the Southeast Side,” Ramirez said. “… It’s a clear symbol that this neighborhood is a sacrifice zone.”

Two public hearings on these projects are scheduled for May 14 online. Ramirez and Irizarry urged residents to register to comment at the hearings by emailing Illinois Environmental Protection Agency hearing officer Jeff Guy. Reached Tuesday, Guy said only three or four people had signed up to speak so far.

In light of the Hilco controversy in Little Village, it’s important for the city to thoroughly vet private companies that can harm the environment, Ramirez said.

“With Hilco, the city believed what they were saying and let them regulate themselves and you saw what happened with the implosion,” Ramirez said. “The city needs to stop giving these industries the benefit of the doubt.”

If approved, General Iron’s metal scrapping plant would be located at 11600 S. Burley Ave., less than a mile from George Washington High School.

General Iron officials did not return calls. But in a three-page letter sent to the city’s Department of Public Health March 24, Steve Joseph, CEO of Reserve Management Group, which owns the scrapper, said the company “is doing more to protect the environment and public health than any other metal shredding facility in the city or area.”

Levandoski said the city requires the new General Iron site to have “enhanced environmental controls, including a new recycling facility with an enclosed shredder equipped with suction hood, high efficiency filters and air monitoring technologies.”

On Monday, Illinois Senators Tammy Duckworth and Richard Durbin sent a letter urging the Environmental Protection Agency to monitor metal scrappers on the Southeast Side.

Residents are particularly concerned about high levels of airborne heavy metals around the school, according to the letter.

Southeast Side’s industrial past

The Southeast Side has been Chicago’s industrial heart for decades. In 1921, the state legislature passed the Lake Calumet Harbor Act, which allowed the city to build a deep water port at Lake Calumet. Along the Calumet River, ships from all over the world navigate to the Port of Chicago, which handles more than 19 million tons of cargo every year, more than any other port on the Great Lakes.

The Southeast Side was also once home to U.S. Steel and its 40,000 workers and several other large steel mills. Today, a lot of that industry is gone, but KCBX maintains two open-air stockpiles of Petcoke, another controversial issue, and a legacy of industrial pollution remains. 

The Southeast Side was long known as a place “that God forgot,” said Chicago historian Dominic Pacyga said, and area residents have been trying for decades to preserve its wetlands.

“It was a rough-and-tumble steel workers community for 120 years,” Pacyga said. “Many people didn’t know about it because it was so far away from the Loop, but if you stood on the lake at night at 55th Street in Hyde Park and looked south, it looked like you were looking at hell because the entire sky was lit up in orange and red from the steel mills.”

Residents on the Southeast Side struggle with “a lot of cancer, a lot of breathing problems, asthma and so on over the years,” Pacyga said.

MIT anthropologist and Southeast side native Christine Calley, who made the 2012 documentary “Exit Zero” about the deindustrialization of the neighborhood, said neighbors thought conditions would improve after the steel mills closed.

“People assumed the environment would become cleaner,” Calley said in an email. “To some extent, this is true. But there’s also an ongoing reality of pollution from secondary industry, bulk storage, or ongoing waste disposal.”

Today, there is still pollution, and a lot less jobs, Calley said.

“Residents began protesting against the landfills in the 1980s, and they’re still protesting against the region continuously being used for purposes that no one else wants,” she said.

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