Every day, after Gina Ramirez returns from her 1½ hour commute from the Loop to her home on Chicago’s Southeast Side, she reaches for a mop to clean up any toxic dust that may have been tracked inside.
Flanked by landfills, steel mills and metal scrap yards, pollution concerns have been part of life in the East Side neighborhood since Ramirez’s great-grandfather immigrated to the area from Oaxaca, Mexico, in the 1930s. Some days the odors are so pungent she’s afraid to open her window or let her 4-year-old son play outside.
“The vision for my neighborhood is just the status quo,” Ramirez said. “It’s just an industrial armpit of Chicago. There’s real people in this neighborhood, trying to raise families, and I just want it to be a little cleaner for my son. Because his life is just as important as a child’s life on the North Side.”
For generations, minority and low-income communities have taken on disproportionate amounts of toxic waste and industrial pollution, and this is especially true in large metropolitan areas like Chicago, experts say.
In response to political pressure from activists, state and federal officials began establishing “environmental justice” policies in the 1990s to prevent toxic threats in poor and minority neighborhoods.
But a decade after Illinois launched its program, communities like East Side — where 80 percent of the residents are Latino and 25 percent of households make less than $25,000 a year — have seen little progress.
These lasting inequalities, in Illinois and across the nation, raise a troubling question from scholars: Are environmental justice policies actually bridging the gap, or are they solely declarations of good intentions?
Public outreach, the most tangible piece of the environmental justice program, is spotty in Illinois. According to records obtained by the Tribune, over the past 3½ years, no outreach was conducted in more than half the cases in which the state Environmental Protection Agency considered a permit that could affect air, water or soil quality in an environmental justice area. No public hearings were held in nearly two years for such cases. Even when notices were sent to neighborhood groups, the letters didn’t detail how the public could become involved. Nor did they outline the period of time the public had to respond.
Paul Mohai, founder of the Environmental Justice Program at the University of Michigan, who helped draft recommendations for Michigan’s impending environmental justice policy following the Flint water crisis, said there’s little evidence to suggest that current programs are accomplishing their goals of environmental equity.
“It’s often painted as ‘We want to hear from the community.’ But people realize they are being manipulated, the decisions have already been made and they’re going through a meaningless exercise to keep a lid on the potential controversy,” Mohai said. “The irony, to me, is the result of doing that creates distrust.”
The chief responsibility of the EPA’s environmental justice officer — an ombudsman of sorts — is to bolster public engagement, which includes sending letters to notify elected officials and community groups when a company seeks a building permit.
According to records obtained by the Tribune, between January 2015 and August 2018, almost 2,000 permit applications were cataloged in the state’s environmental justice outreach database and marked as completed. But in 56 percent of these cases, no notification letter was sent. When a notification letter was sent, the Tribune found at least 80 instances in which communities were given the minimum two weeks or less to respond.
Chris Pressnall, the state EPA’s current environmental justice officer, acknowledged that his office has not hosted any community meetings in an environmental justice community in nearly two years, during which time more than 1,100 cases were completed. Pressnall, who said the aim isn’t to send notices for every permit application, notes that the agency doesn’t get a response in the vast majority of cases in which letters are sent.
“There’s a lack of clarity by everybody on the EJ notification process — the facilities, the public, internally at the EPA,” Pressnall said. “… At the last Illinois Commission on Environmental Justice meeting, I brought up that I wanted to start talking about the EJ notification process and the public participation plan to ferret out where it can be improved, and also to get some acknowledgement that, ‘Hey, we’re sending out a lot of these and nobody’s responding. I don’t know if that’s a good use of my or the agency’s resources.’ ”
In Illinois, perhaps no one has been more instrumental in the creation and shaping of the state’s environmental justice policies than Keith Harley, an attorney who has filed several federal complaints arguing the permitting and siting of some facilities violated a section of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits discrimination based on race and national origin.
Harley’s first grievance, filed in 1998 in response to an incinerator in south suburban Robbins, led to the creation of the environmental justice office. In 2010, Harley argued the Illinois EPA denied the residents of Ford Heights an opportunity to become involved before it issued permits to Geneva Energy, a facility that burned tires to produce power. This action expanded the scope of the environmental justice program’s public participation policy. In 2015, Harley lodged another complaint contending the Illinois EPA didn’t conduct outreach when it issued a lifetime permit to Agri-Fine, an animal feed producer in the Pullman neighborhood, after which the the state promised to clear all permits through the environmental justice officer before they were issued.
“The Robbins incinerator was shut down, Geneva Energy was dismantled, Agri-Fine no longer operates,” said Harley, who also sits on the state commission on environmental justice. “What I take away is, when communities do receive information, do engage the agency, have access to legal services, that they can make a profound difference.”
Still, opportunities for meaningful public involvement hinge on notification. And the consequences of lapsed notifications can be seen across the state.
Pollution vs. jobs
Granite City, an aging industrial town across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, is dominated by a sprawling U.S. Steel plant with a long history of pollution problems. Nearly half of the 30,000 people who live within 3 miles of the steel mill are poor, qualifying surrounding neighborhoods as environmental justice communities.
In July, President Donald Trump came to town to announce U.S. Steel would restart two blast furnaces that had been idled since 2015, a move he attributed to new tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. The Pittsburgh-based company had shut down the mill amid a drop in oil prices that dried up demand for steel pipes and tubes manufactured in Granite City, but moved to resume operations as the price of crude oil began to rise again.
Restarting the blast furnaces led to the recall of 800 laid-off workers. While putting people back to work got all the headlines, the Illinois EPA failed to uphold one of the pillars of environmental justice laws by skipping a requirement to notify neighbors about other changes that promise to bring them more pollution.
The state agency did not notify the community about several applications for new permits to modify how landfills are managed and monitored by U.S. Steel, which was cited for violating waste management laws as recently as 2016. Nor were notices posted when Granite City Slag LLC, an associated facility cited for failing to submit annual reports of its emissions for 2011, applied to renew its permit to crush a byproduct of steelmaking concentrated with toxic metals.
Neighbors also were shut out when Gateway Energy & Coke Co., a U.S. Steel supplier with its own track record of pollution violations, applied to install a new steam generator fueled by noxious gases from the company’s massive coke ovens. Gateway is responsible for some of the highest cancer risks in the nation from coke oven gases, according to the U.S. EPA’s latest assessment of the health dangers posed by toxic air pollution.
Mayor Ed Hagnauer could not be reached for comment for this article, but in a March Tribune report he called the announcement of U.S. Steel jobs a “morale builder.”
“For two years, I’ve been going around town and everyone asks, ‘When are the jobs coming back?’ ” he said, noting that town officials’ and residents’ efforts to draw attention to the job losses never halted. “These are very good jobs, and we appreciate these jobs being here. The community was built around this steel plant; the community wasn’t built first.”
Others also argue that environmental justice policies are harmful to disadvantaged communities that could benefit from new jobs and tax revenue.
Richard Trzupek, an environmental consultant for industry, said the designation of an environmental justice area (a community within a mile of an area with twice the statewide average of minority or low-income population) scares away would-be developers.
“One of the reasons that projects don’t get built in some poorer areas is environmental justice,” Trzupek said. “Everyone is in fear of being labeled as trying to take advantage of poor communities. From my point of view, the EPA has standards for what can be emitted in the air and water. Either those standards are protective of human health or they’re not. So, establishing a special other review is saying, ‘Well, the EPA is not doing their job.’ That ‘other’ review causes developers to avoid poor neighborhoods, and I think that’s a shame.”
Trzupek, a native of Chicago’s Southeast Side, acknowledged some areas endure a greater share of industrial pollution, but he believes that’s the result of developers historically finding cheaper land in poor communities.
According to a 2007 study on toxic waste and race based on the 2000 census, of the more than 9 million people who lived within 1.8 miles of a commercial hazardous waste facility, 56 percent were people of color. In Chicago, that figure jumped to 72 percent. Chicago was one of six metropolitan areas that accounted for half of all people of color living in close proximity to all of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities.
Fewer resources to push back
Environmental advocates like Kim Wasserman contend that industrial polluters deliberately target disadvantaged communities that have fewer resources to push back against unwanted development.
Wasserman, a native of Little Village and mother of three, lived less than a mile away from the coal-fired Crawford power plant for 12 years. From an early age, her two sons suffered from asthma attacks and Wasserman quickly had to learn about their triggers. For more than a decade, she and other activists demanded officials close the Crawford plant as well as the Fisk coal plant in neighboring Pilsen. Both closed in 2012.
Even after that hard-fought victory, the prospect of more industry sprouted up, including a massive distribution center slated for the Crawford site, possibly bringing a fleet of diesel trucks. That was enough to motivate Wasserman to move to nearby McKinley Park, a working-class neighborhood that’s 63 percent Latino and 18 percent Asian.
But not even a year after her move, a large asphalt plant was quietly built across the street from the neighborhood’s namesake park, catching neighbors by surprise when they noticed silos being erected.
Because of an EPA staffer’s oversight, the environmental justice review was expedited, leaving only two weeks for the community to express concerns before the permit was issued. The agency ultimately didn’t receive any responses from the public.
Although a letter was dispatched to a few regional or state organizations like the Illinois chapters of the Sierra Club and American Lung Association, McKinley Park residents say there were no postings, meetings or mailings to community groups before the permit was issued.
The ZIP code where MAT Asphalt is sited contains 2,970 households who speak limited English, but the notification was not sent in Spanish.
In an interview last month, Pressnall, the state EPA’s environmental justice officer, acknowledged he has yet to send a notification letter in Spanish.
While a local alderman who received campaign donations from the owners of the asphalt plant was aware of the plant’s arrival, at least two lawmakers who were on the distribution list have said they didn’t receive the notice. Among them, state Sen. Tony Munoz has introduced a bill to require the EPA to send notification letters to Illinois representatives and senators within 15 days of receiving a permit application that may impact air or water quality.
Currently, the environmental justice policy isn’t required by law. If a notification isn’t sent, the permit can still be issued.
Fighting for a seat at the table
Wasserman is also calling for environmental justice policies at the local levels and zoning reforms as a solution.
“Right now, we’re getting things fast-tracked and permitted in less than two weeks in the city of Chicago,” Wasserman said. “It’s a s—show how quickly this stuff is happening. For us, any legal arm that we can use to our benefit, we’re going to take it.
“This should not be a process that folks can glide through given everything we know about environmental health.”
The McKinley Park community will have an informal meeting and public hearing sometime next year ahead of a decision on MAT Asphalt’s long-term operating permit, Pressnall said.
But public opposition alone can’t thwart a permit application. If the public is granted a meeting, some demands could translate into stipulations for a permit, like requiring a company to wash its trucks to avoid spreading lung-aggravating dust. Generally, the company has to agree to those conditions because they can be appealed.
“It’s not just the notification process, but once you get the notification process, what are you empowered to do?” Wasserman said. “Let’s say best notification process in the world is up and running. If my voice can’t stop a project, I think there’s a bigger question to be had.”
A coalition of environmental justice organizations gathered at a YMCA gymnasium last month in Pilsen to share their experiences in fighting for a seat at the table. Residents of the predominantly Latino Southwest and Southeast sides talked about becoming increasingly unnerved as industrial operations relocate from the quickly gentrifying Northwest Side to their neighborhoods.
Ramirez, the East Side mother, recently learned about metal scrapper General Iron’s announcement that the facility is expected to relocate from Lincoln Park to the South Deering neighborhood. There were also reports that the city and Army Corps of Engineers were eyeing five abandoned industrial properties on the Southeast Side for a new landfill to dispose of contaminated sediment dredged from the bottom of the Calumet River and Cal-Sag Channel.
Earlier at the meeting, a slideshow displayed the U.S. EPA’s principle of environmental justice, which it defines as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income” when it comes to environmental regulation. Though the notion was admirable, few left the gymnasium convinced it was anything more than that.
“My whole life I’ve seen pollution and now the same is happening for my son,” Ramirez said. “And that’s really concerning, because you always want better for your child. I’d much rather be teaching him how to ride a bike than learning about manganese.”
Chicago Tribune’s Michael Hawthorne contributed.
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November 15, 2018 at 06:18AM