BACK OF THE YARDS — Dozens of semi-trucks pass Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School students as they walk home from school.
A faint chemical smell emanating from Wheatland Tube Company, an industrial pipe and tube manufacturer less than a block away, mixes in with the smell of diesel truck exhaust as students walk west on 47th Street past Western Avenue.
“It sort of resembles a sewer smell, and, at times, I see smoke being emitted from the factory,” senior Humberto Castaneda said.
The Southwest Side school sits in one of the most pollution-burdened areas of Chicago for children, according to the latest research in a three-part study from University of Illinois Chicago.
Using publicly available data, researchers gave each of Chicago’s 77 community areas a cumulative score based on how close local public schools are to pollution sources. The more K-8 students there are in a community area within a one-mile radius of a pollution source, the higher the score.
The first and second parts of the study, published in 2021, concluded CPS schools with majority Latino student populations were disproportionately burdened by pollution — meaning the neighborhoods they live in are, too.
The third part of the study, published last week, is an interactive map to make the study’s findings accessible to neighbors. It’s the result of six months of input from community groups and policymakers.
Researchers and community leaders say prolonged exposure to air pollution isn’t solely about public health, but also environmental justice. Polluters are unevenly situated throughout the city in part because of its design — many densely populated neighborhoods are in industrial corridors or surrounded by major roadways — and because of municipal planning decisions.
The study “goes to further prove that the city is purposefully exacerbating environmental racism by continually allowing these industries to be placed in our communities,” said Kim Wasserman, executive director of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.
‘The Burden Is Significant For School Children’
Across the United States, schools where the majority of students are people of color are more likely to be near pollution sources compared to majority white schools, according to the first national study on environmental justice and schools, published in 2018.
Chicago ranks as among the top five worst cities for air pollution near public schools, according to the national research. Back of the Yards — part of the New City community area — is roughly 70 percent Latino and 20 percent Black. It’s is also home to six of the eight rail hubs in the city and roughly 19 acres of brownfield sites, according to UIC researchers.
UIC’s earlier research showed schools in the area, where Back of the Yards College Prep is located, scored 16 times above the city average for their collective proximity to toxic facilities.
The next highest-scoring neighborhoods also are on the Southwest Side and have majority Latino students. The Lower West Side community area, which includes Pilsen, scored nine times above the city average, and community area South Lawndale, which includes Little Village, scored seven times higher.
Studies have shown chronic exposure to air pollution can negatively impact children’s brain function. Children are especially vulnerable because they tend to spend more time outside during the school day, thus getting more exposure to toxic air pollutants than adults.
Pollution burdens in some neighborhoods are at a record high for all residents, but “the burden is significant for school children, and that’s an alarming finding,” said Michael Cailas, a UIC associate professor and co-author of the study.
On the dashboard, users can search an address and toggle views on the map to see what types of pollution sources show up near them.
The map shows how close an address is to:
- Toxic Release Inventory facilities, or large-scale producers that generate hazardous chemicals above a certain regulatory threshold determined by the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Brownfield sites, or former industrial land the EPA determines are potentially contaminated.
- Asphalt plants.
- Freight hubs.
Users also can explore detailed information about the chemicals emitted at each facility, as well as create and download reports of certain areas.
For example, people can see that in the one-mile radius around Back of the Yards College Prep, there are nine other schools — as well as Wheatland, a toxic release inventory facility; a brownfield; a freight yard and a construction company.
Wheatland emits lead, according to UIC’s map, which is a carcinogen. Chemicals from nearby industries produce toxins regulated by the Clean Air Act, like manganese, a metal used in steelmaking, and toulene, which is added to gasoline, used to produce benzene and used as a solvent, according to the map.
Spokespeople for Wheatland did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“This dashboard will enable people to enter their address and see what is around them,” Calias said. “That’s important because there might be things they’re not even aware of.”
‘Environmental Racism At Their Front Door’
The research comes as residents, organizers and officials are bringing increased attention to environmental injustices in communities of color.
In October, a Pilsen metal scrapper was sued by the state for allegedly breaking air pollution laws. The city delayed a decision to grant an operating permit for a controversial Southeast Side metal scrapper last year after organizers staged a month-long hunger strike and recently postponed a decision on the permit again. Hilco’s Crawford Coal Plant implosion that left Little Village covered in dust in April 2020 incited residents to advocate for more accountability and transparency.
But residents have fought sources of pollution near their homes for decades.
“We’ve been highlighting the issue of diesel trucks in our neighborhood for some time,” said Wasserman, whose organization was founded in 1994. “People on the ground have been living with environmental racism at their front door.”
Back of the Yards high school senior Adriana Elizalde started volunteering with the Sunrise Movement to fight climate change because of the pollution in her neighborhood.
“Where I go to school, there’s factories everywhere,” said Elizalde, who grew up in Brighton Park. “When I’m walking to school, on the way there’ll be a lot of cars and you can just smell the gas. That got me interested in environmental issues.”
Others, like Theresa Reyes McNamara, didn’t find out about the pollution they lived near until something happened.
McNamara lives two blocks away from MAT Asphalt, 2055 W. Pershing Road, a McKinley Park asphalt plant that has outraged neighbors for emitting chemical odors and asphalt dust. It moved to the neighborhood in 2018. When she found out about it in 2019, she went talking to neighbors to see if they’d heard about the plant.
Last year, McNamara found out her husband was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, which several studies have found is linked to air pollution exposure.
“It’s been one thing after another [after his diagnosis], and he’s been in and out of the hospital since then. Blood thinners, he lost sight in one eye, all within the last year and a half,” said McNamara, an organizer with the Southwest Environmental Alliance. “But we continue to fight, and we continue to tell people how important it is.”
Casteneda said he realized what environmental justice meant to him during a class project his senior year.
Casteneda planned to research global climate change issues, but he switched gears after interviewing residents and organizers near his home in McKinley Park.
“Through interviews with other residents of climate action organizations, they stated that the McKinley Park neighborhood … had probably one of the worst carbon emissions ratings they’ve seen,” he said. “I was really shocked at that fact, and I decided to dig deeper into what I could do for my surrounding neighborhood.”
Casteneda filed a complaint to the Chicago Department of Public Health about the smells coming from Wheatland Tube as part of his class project.
“I really tried to do something at the local level,” he said. “Overall, I felt really annoyed at the situation and how I was powerless to do something about it. But I did have some words to say with some health inspectors. That was my contribution.”
Wasserman, whose organization recently hired a youth organizer, said it is critical to listen to the young people affected by and drawing attention to these issues.
“Young people, they get it,” Wasserman said. “I don’t have to talk to them about how economic justice ties to environmental justice ties to social justice. They fundamentally get it, and all we’re doing is ignoring them versus giving them the power to lead these conversations.”
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