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Public housing residents kept in dark about toxic sites, report says

Housing authorities and the EPA should work together to better inform residents about health threats, the report says.

Cheryl Johnson talks to neighbors in Altgeld Gardens, Wednesday July 1, 2020
| Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Cheryl Johnson grew up in a community so polluted it became known as the toxic doughnut because of the hundreds of environmental threats around her home at Altgeld Gardens public housing on the far South Side.

Altgeld Gardens and nearby Trumbull Park, both Chicago Housing Authority developments, are within a short drive of the Lake Calumet Cluster, an almost 90-acre site of former toxic-waste dumps. Despite the best efforts of Johnson, who continues an activist campaign started by her late mother, Hazel, the government has yet to complete a decades-long cleanup.

A new report finds that the government has been slow to clean up toxic sites near public housing and has failed to inform residents about the threats they face or give them a say on future uses of remediated land. Federal and local housing authorities and the Environmental Protection Agency should do a better job of protecting residents’ health, the report says.

“A confluence of historic policies and practices have encouraged the construction of federally assisted housing in areas of environmental contamination and have also enabled the polluting industry to be built near existing low-income housing,” said the report, Poisonous Homes, led by the Shriver Center on Poverty Law.

The study notes that it looks at only a slice of poor communities that are in polluted areas. Still, across the country, tens of thousands of families living in federally assisted housing also happen to live close to some of the worst hazardous-waste sites designated for cleanup. That’s the case with Altgeld Gardens and Trumbull as well as nearby West Calumet housing complex across the border in East Chicago, Indiana. Combined, the two Chicago sites have more than 2,400 apartments.

Ensuring that residents near toxic-waste cleanup sites “have the information and tools they need to participate in the decision-making process is a cornerstone of our program,” an EPA spokeswoman said in a statement. “We welcome the opportunity to advance our commitment to community involvement and environmental justice.”

One of the researchers disputed the agency’s assertion.

“Our research demonstrates that time and time again, EPA and the parties financially responsible for these sites have not provided information to members of the public in a timely, comprehensive and understandable manner,” said study coauthor Mark Templeton, director of the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago. “Failure to do so has put public health and safety at risk.”

The Abrams clinic and Earthjustice partnered with Shriver to produce the study.

In a statement, the Chicago Housing Authority said it “conducts all necessary environmental assessment procedures outlined” by federal law. The agency also noted that the city’s Department of Assets, Information and Services performs environmental evaluations on CHA properties, which are shared with resident representatives.

In a separate statement, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds CHA, said its “primary concern is the health and well-being of public housing residents.”

Housing authorities need to work better with EPA and with residents on environmental issues, Johnson said.

“It’s sad that we have to prove to the government something that they already knew,” said Johnson, who leads the group her mother founded, People for Community Recovery.

Johnson’s mother, Hazel, was a fierce advocate for poor people who suffer from toxic contamination, a fight that brought national attention to the problem. Hazel Johnson’s work led to an executive order by President Bill Clinton in 1994 to recognize so-called environmental justice communities, minority and low-income areas disproportionately affected by pollution.

Cheryl Johnson
| Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The Altgeld Gardens row houses were built in 1945 as a housing development initially for Black veterans and their families and was surrounded by dozens of landfills, hundreds of underground chemical-storage tanks and other industrial hazards, the Shriver report notes. It was Hazel who coined the term toxic doughnut.

The nearby Lake Calumet Cluster is a site that includes at least three former hazardous-waste storage facilities and a former waste incinerator, EPA records show. It’s on a list of sites for high-priority cleanup but that designation was made 10 years ago after decades of complaints and study. While some toxic materials have been removed it’s unclear when the site will be completely remediated.

‘A horrific smell’

At nearby Trumbull Park, built in 1938, residents are kept in the dark about environmental issues, said a longtime leader at the housing site.

“At Trumbull Park, every summer, there’s a horrific smell,” said Myra King, president of the housing development’s local advisory council. “You can’t walk down the street without covering your nose and mouth.”

King says she and others have complained to CHA but have never gotten an answer on the source of the smell.

“CHA may write back and say something like ‘we’re working with EPA’ or something like that,” King said. “Residents are furious about that smell.”

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.