A Southeast Side neighborhood that’s been a dumping ground for decades finally got some relief Tuesday from the release of potentially harmful manganese dust, but not enough to satisfy area residents.
The City Council’s Zoning Committee approved an ordinance championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel that would effectively prohibit new facilities from storing or handling materials containing more than trace amounts of manganese, a heavy metal used in steel making known to cause brain damage.
The mayor’s ordinance would not apply to facilities where manganese has been stored for at least a year. But it would prohibit those companies from expanding operations that involve the heavy metal.
Violators would be punished by fines of $1,000-a-day that, Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) warned, could easily be built into the cost of doing business.
Prior to the final vote, Southeast Side residents, including a local elementary school student who lives near S.H. Bell Co., talked about the “game of wack-a-mole” that requires them to organize anew “every time there’s a new pollutant” dumped on their neighborhood.
They warned that, in Emanuel’s haste to appease Southeast Side residents and their local Ald. Susan Sadlowski-Garza (10th), the ordinance does not go nearly far enough.
“My children have sleep apnea, asthma and allergies. You need to wake up. We are damaging our DNA structure,” said Sara Hernandez.
“It brings me frustration to see my community — African- American and Hispanic — [victimized]. They don’t have time to come here because they work double-shifts. They cannot come here to speak up. They’re going through suffering. Our kids having mental illnesses. Depression….At school, they have to call me every single time. Have empathy for our kids.”
Gina Ramirez, a third-generation resident of the Southeast Side with a 3-year-old child, said she’s grateful the city is “taking action to halt the expansion of facilities handling manganese.” But she’s concerned about “the exemption from the prohibition on new and expanded manganese operations for manufacturing establishments, which can also result in manganese flowing into the community.”
Ramirez also urged the city to do more to “address the existing problem”— by banning manganese handling in certain areas and phasing it out in others. She noted that “many of these handlers and users have been in operations for decades” in the 10th Ward.
“I question every day if my son has been exposed. Not having strong enough restrictions puts my family and so many others at risk,” Ramirez said.
“I ask you to think if this was your neighborhood and you were raising a child in this environment, would this ordinance be strong enough? I am asking you today to protect people – not polluters.”
Peggy Salazar, director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, noted that manganese is a “known neuro-toxin” and that S.H. Bell is located across the street from residential homes.
“I ask you, aldermen, have you taken the time to review the air monitoring data? Have you seen the recent soil testing results? Do you know that 40 local children have demonstrated elevated levels of manganese in their system? Do you know if the petcoke ordinance that was passed fixed the problem?” Salazar asked aldermen.
“If you can’t answer, ‘yes’ to all of these questions, I urge that you consider what it is that you’re supporting and ask yourselves, ‘Is it enough?’ We can’t afford for the city not to get this right.”
Sadlowski-Garza described the ordinance as a “living breathing document” that can be amended if it doesn’t go far enough. She argued that this is “only the beginning” of the legislative crackdown against manganese.
“You’re right. It’s wack-a-mole. We’re constantly fighting polluters…We’re tired,” Sadlowski-Garza said.
“The 10th Ward has always been the dumping ground for the city and it continues to be that way…Things have to change.”
Earlier this year, S.H. Bell yielded to pressure from city and federal authorities and agreed to stop outdoor storage of manganese. The company further agreed to suspend barge transfers of the toxic material during high winds to prevent manganese dust from blowing into surrounding neighborhoods.
Roughly 20,000 people live within a mile of the company’s Chicago plant. More than 1,700 of them are young children.