MCKINLEY PARK — McKinley Park residents have waited years for a public forum to demand more input when polluters seek to operate in the neighborhood.
On Thursday, they decided they were done waiting. So they created a people’s hearing for neighbors to testify how MAT Asphalt plant — which set up shop with no notice to residents in 2018 — has negatively affected their livelihoods and health.
“Having a serious health condition and living a block-and-a-half away from a polluter that is seriously making me ill, and also living in a pandemic has been very stressful,” resident Dana Blanchard said at the rally.
Neither the company or public officials told nearby residents a new polluter was coming to the neighborhood, and there were no public hearings for them to voice their concerns about the environmental impacts of the factory.
More than 250 complaints have been sent to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the city’s public health department, according to records the neighbors obtained through public records requests and reviewed by Block Club. Several complaints about the impact of the pollution on children came from nearby schools, including Horizon Science Academy, less than a block from the factory.
The state initially planned a public hearing to evaluate whether to offer the factory a 10-year operating permit, but it was postponed because of the pandemic.
Blanchard is on long-term chemotherapy treatment for lymphoma, and the factory’s pollution creates serious challenges for managing her condition. Some days when MAT Asphalt is operating, she feels unsafe walking through the park because of how it may impact her health.
“The smell is so bad that I am concerned that I will get a headache, I will have my throat close up,” she said. “We feel like we might have to move from this place that we love so much because for our long-term health, it’s not okay to live in a place that is furthering the chances that I will die early.”
Some days the odors of asphalt and sulfur linger inside homes in the area, according to Robert Beedle, a founding member of the Neighbors For Environmental Justice group that formed to fight the asphalt plant.
“No one should ever have to wake up with the smell of chemicals in their house, trapped by pollution,” Beedle said.
Residents say the city is ultimately to blame for the environmental impacts of the factory. Not only did the city fail to notify residents that a new polluter was operating in the neighborhood, but the city has at least $15 million worth of contracts with MAT Asphalt, Department of Transportation records show.
Factory owner Michael Tadin Jr. defended his company’s record.
“Through competitive bidding, we have saved Chicago taxpayers millions of dollars over the past two years and we look forward to saving the city millions more,” Tadin said.
Though the city still contracts with MAT Asphalt, city inspectors from the have documented numerous issues and violations at the factory as recently as this summer.
“After observing for 10 minutes, I became nauseous and felt ill and had to move away from the location,” a July 13 inspector report read.
Another report four days later said the chemical odors being emitted by the factory were overwhelming: “These odors are very uncomfortable to inhale and instantly made me nauseous,” the report said.
Trucks leaving the factory visibly emitted fumes as they drove the asphalt out through the neighborhood, the report said. Inspectors also said the factory wasn’t doing enough to prevent toxic particulate dust from blowing off the asphalt and into the neighborhood.
The report also found direct violations of the company’s permit with the city’s public health department.
The company was using a crusher to break down pieces of asphalt, an emission source that was not valid under MAT Asphalt’s permit with the city, according to the report.
“The city has contacted MAT Asphalt representatives about neighborhood concerns and the company’s operational needs. Discussions are ongoing,” a spokesperson from the Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office said in a statement.
Tadin disputes these concerns and said the plant’s state-of-the-art technology minimizes any environmental health effects caused by pollution.
“MAT Asphalt is the cleanest industrial facility in all of Chicagoland, with high standards that go beyond regulations. We look forward to disputing any citations in the proper venue,” Tadin said in response to the allegations.
Tadin said the crusher does have a valid permit and the company hasn’t received a citation from the city for that or for the July inspections.
Residents say the city is benefiting from environmental racism, and are demanding Lightfoot end the city contracts with the company.
“Every day that Chicago continues to contract with this company, and every day that they continue to allow them to operate is a grave injustice for all of us here. And it is one that the state could end this week, if it had the courage to do the right thing,” Beedle said.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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