Citing ‘legacy of environmental racism,’ report urges City Hall to consider Southeast Side residents’ health

Chicago city planners are re-examining industrial corridors this year. A new study says they need to consider the impact chemicals and other pollutants have on health.

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Martha Vazquez and her daughter Nicole Hernandez have immune system disorders they believe were triggered by environmental conditions on the Southeast Side.

Martha Vazquez and her daughter Nicole Hernandez have immune system disorders they believe were triggered by environmental conditions on the Southeast Side.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

After a period of illness that led to her gallbladder being removed, Nicole Hernandez was being diagnosed early last year for lupus when her doctor asked: Had she ever worked with metals or chemicals?

Hernández, 18, said she’s never worked with either. But, as a lifelong resident of the Southeast Side, she’s been exposed to air pollution from heavy industry in one of the most polluted parts of Chicago. Other than a rotten smell — “a smell I grew up with,” she said — Hernández wasn’t specifically aware of the particular environmental hazards all around her.

Air monitors around the school she attended, George Washington High School, have shown high levels of toxic metals in the air, state data show. Now, a new report is urging city planners to consider high levels of pollution and its effects on the health of people who live in the community.

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Hernández’s older sister Alex also has a history of illness. Having survived pancreatic cancer after being diagnosed at 13, Alex recently was found to have lupus, a disorder that causes the immune system to attack healthy cells. 

Martha Vázquez, their mother, has struggled with her own autoimmune disorder, Hashimoto’s disease, which affects her thyroid. Like lupus, Vázquez’s condition saps her energy.

It’s unknown exactly what causes these conditions. But researchers suspect a combination of genetics and environmental triggers.

Vázquez said multiple doctors have peppered the family with questions about the environment around their home.

The Southeast Side is home to the city’s largest industrial corridor — one of more than two dozen areas across the city that historically were designated for manufacturing and other industrial uses. Businesses in the area, called the Calumet industrial corridor, release more than 1 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air every year. And many homes are only a short distance from the sources of the pollution, the new study led by the Alliance for the Great Lakes says. 

Among the chemicals the study identifies that are being released into the air are cadmium, naphthalene and ethyl benzene — all classified as hazardous air pollutants by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

The authors of the study say city planners should consider the impact these chemicals and other pollution sources have on health as Chicago embarks on a review of the industrial corridor this year. The study points to “the legacy of environmental racism,” noting that the Southeast Side is largely Latino and Black.

“The first priority in industrial corridor planning efforts must be to protect public health and the environment while fostering new patterns of economic and job growth,” something that hasn’t occurred over decades, the study found.

Among its recommendations:

  • Focus on public health and engage the public and be more transparent. 
  • Provide economic incentives for more sustainable businesses. 
  • Engage the community to be part of big planning and process decisions.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity to set the stage for the future,” said Joel Brammeier, chief executive officer of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “Stop defaulting to what seems easiest, which right now seems to be using land in a first-come and first-serve way that’s at odds with the people who live in these neighborhoods.”

While an industrial corridor review that started under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel resulted in zoning and land-use changes to make way for the multibillion-dollar North Side Lincoln Yards development in 2017, most other industrial areas in Chicago haven’t had land-use reviews since the 1990s.

A City Hall spokesman said the city plans to review the Calumet industrial corridor this year and that the new report “will help inform the public health aspect.” 

The report assigned scores based on EPA guidelines measuring the impact of toxic releases. The score assessed the amount of chemicals and their toxicity along with the population living nearby.

The highest score in 2017 was given to American Zinc Recycling, which last year reached a settlement with the EPA regarding accusations of violations of air pollution laws. The company agreed to spend about $8 million on pollution-control upgrades and to pay $530,000 in fines. 

American Zinc Recycling — which recycles hazardous materials from steel production — “is pleased we resolved these issues with the EPA,” said Bruce Morgan, vice president of environmental health and safety.

The report also urges that the city do a better job of inspecting and enforcing violations of toxic releases. Citing a City Hall inspector general’s office report on air pollution enforcement, the report said the city needs to step up efforts to inspect and crack down on polluters. 

“Things need to change,” said Shehara Waas, one of the researchers who put together the new report. “There’s been this long legacy of pollution. It’s been looked at as this economic engine.”

The Southeast Side once was one of the world’s largest centers of steel production. That ended when the steel mills were shut down decades ago in the face of cheaper competition.

Research from another group, the Calumet Collaborative, has mapped thousands of toxic sites on the Southeast Side and just across the state line in northwest Indiana in an effort to encourage what’s called brownfield redevelopment.

Past reports, including one on air quality from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office last July, have pointed to the environmental burden the Southeast Side bears. Lightfoot promised at the time of the report to back a zoning ordinance that would try to address air pollution in environmental justice communities. She so far has been unsuccessful finding support to move it out of a Chicago City Council committee.

Over the past couple of years, no issue has been more divisive on the Southeast Side than the planned move of General Iron’s car-shredding operations from Lincoln Park to an industrial space along the Calumet River at East 116th Street. 

On Thursday, a George Washington High School teacher and two community activists said they were beginning a hunger strike to demand that Lightfoot deny a final permit for the new site, which would operate under the name Southside Recycling. That operation is a short distance from the high school.

Nicole Hernandez says a number of her high school classmates suffered from asthma.

Nicole Hernández says a number of her high school classmates suffered from asthma.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

The Southeast Side has a large mix of manufacturers, including Ford Motor Co.’s South Torrence Avenue plant, which employs nearly 6,000 people.

Much closer to George Washington High School is American Zinc at East 114th Street, across the Calumet River from the Southside Recycling site. Reserve Management Group, which bought General Iron in 2019 and operates other businesses on a former steel mill site, has said it expects to get the permit from the city

Three federal investigations are under way to determine whether the move violates the civil rights of Southeast Side residents.

The new report examined pollution from more than 90 facilities. It also examined a few sites in heavily industrial Lake County, Indiana, just across the state line from the Southeast Side corridor.

This isn’t the first study to look at such issues related to the hoped-for revitalization of the Southeast Side. In 2016, a University of Illinois at Chicago study recommended steps including establishing a small business incubator, creating mixed-use developments and setting aside entertainment and green community spaces.

“A lot of the way land use has been done hasn’t changed in this city for a very long time,” said Christina Harris, director of land use and planning for the nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council. “From the perspective of where we should be, we need to reconsider how we’re siting major developments and how it impacts human health.”

The Metropolitan Planning Council and the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health helped compile the 300-plus-page report. 

It doesn’t address illnesses like the autoimmune disorders that Nicole Hernandez and her family have. But it finds that the area sees higher rates of heart disease and the lung condition known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease than the city overall and says more study needs to be done.

More than 6,700 cases of COVID-19 — which can be more serious to deal with when someone has COPD or other underlying health problems — and 126 deaths have been reported in ZIP code 60617 since the beginning of the pandemic.

Hernández said she was healthy growing up, but many of her classmates had asthma. 

Trinity Colón, 17, a junior at George Washington High School, said she and her older sister have had respiratory conditions since they were very young. Colón said she began having severe bouts of bronchitis around 7 that were bad enough that she needed to use a nebulizer. Her sister suffered from chronic asthma, she said. In elementary school, it was common for an “asthma van” to make visits every season to test the pupils. 

“I remember being in second grade, and half of my classmates would leave class,” Colón said. 

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

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