Unequal Protection: Chicago, An Industrial Legacy

Unequal-Protection-chicagoThe National Law Journal

Volume 15, Number 3

Copyright 1992 by The New York Law Publishing Company,

The National Law Journal

Monday, September 21, 1992

Unequal Protection

The Racial Divide In Environmental Law

A Special Investigation

Community Profile: Chicago


Story by Marianne Lavelle

WHEN SHE thinks of the ills that have settled in among the people of her neighborhood – from rashes and eye swellings to tragic disease – Cheryl Johnson longs for one big book.

It would be something like a dictionary, where she’d look up the names of the sicknesses so common among the 10,000 residents of Altgeld Gardens: asthma, pink eye, ringworm; and the worse ones, like cancer and birth defects, that have left their mark on her own family.

Beside the name of every ailment she would find the name of every cause. She’d especially like to see the causes with the difficult names – toluene, benzene, trichloroethylene – the chemicals she knows surround them, in the remains of Chicago’s industrial Far South Side.

In a region that once forged half the world’s steel, most of the mills are closed. Their legacy is in the pools and piles they left behind, 50 abandoned dumps of toxic factory waste in an area 6-by-6 miles square. So potent are the discarded mixtures that stunned Illinois inspectors aborted one expedition in a dumping lagoon when their boat began to disintegrate.

The one industry that continues to chug along is the waste business itself – landfills, industrial refuse burners, the city sewage plant. So careless have been operators of these plants that one caused a toxic explosion in February 1991 by mistakenly incinerating a load of flammable chemicals.

This landscape of waste and waste handlers begins across the street from the two-story red brick and faded green shutters of Altgeld. The foothills of the municipal landfill are close enough to the neighborhood playground that the 31- year-old Ms. Johnson remembers thinking, as a child, they were just “mountains for recreation.” It never occurred to her why in Windy City winters they never were covered with snow. She learned later that the mounds were warmed by the decomposing trash beneath.

But there is no great book that spells out the connections between types of pollution and disease, and it’s a gnawing frustration for Ms. Johnson and the circle of family and friends who have been working to bring public attention to the threats that dwell among the people of this African-American community. Ms. Johnson’s 57-year-old mother, Hazel, started the group, People for Community Recovery, the only environmental organization in the country based in a public housing project, in 1982.

Coming Into Focus

 After Love Canal lifted toxic waste into the national consciousness in the late 1970s, Hazel Johnson began to wonder about a link between the heavy local pollution and Altgeld’s common sorrow of birth deformities and premature deaths. Her own husband had died in 1969 of lung cancer, at the age of 41.

The elder Ms. Johnson made 1,000 copies of a health survey she obtained from the city government and began knocking on doors. Many neighbors had faced serious illness, and more than 95 percent complained of respiratory problems, skin rashes and burning eyes. These last ailments are not simply irritations, but are often quite severe, especially in the young. One friend, Caretta McCarter, has an 8-year-old boy, Darnell, who must use a respirator daily to breathe.

Hazel Johnson and about 70 women began focusing on the smells that seemed to be gagging the breath of their community, and, meeting first in churches and living rooms, they began to consider action. One of their first achievements was to prod the city to provide municipal water hook-ups for families that were using sulfur-smelling water from local wells.

Other efforts took longer, like the state’s recent shutdown, for the foreseeable future, of the Chemical Waste Management Inc. incinerator – source of some of the most noxious fumes that permeated the neighborhood. People for Community Recovery began staging protests at the facility in 1986, including one in which Hazel Johnson was one of 17 arrested.

The state began enforcement actions in 1988, finding the company had illegally shut off air monitors, had been storing 80,000 more gallons of waste than the law allowed, and did not check carefully the types of the waste it was burning, resulting in last year’s explosion. The company ultimately agreed in July to pay a state record $5 million in fines, $500,000 to a local scholarship, and to stay shut until it got a full operating permit.

Illinois would have allowed the plant gradually to re-open without a permit, but the citizens intervened with pro bono help of Chicago’s Business and Professional People in the Public Interest. “This incinerator was under state regulation for years, and our clients felt the state wasn’t doing its job,” says BPI lawyer Julie Elena Brown. “They deserve a lot of credit for their perseverence, and their political and legal organizing.”

Personal Costs

 But there were costs along the way for the Johnson family, and for the overall effort to reduce risk in the community. Cheryl’s younger sister, Valerie, was working three years ago as one of a group of court-ordered citizen monitors at the incinerator, a unique arrangement for which they had battled hard. But the family blames on-site toxics for tragedy when Valerie became pregnant. Ultrasound showed her baby was developing without a head or a bottom, and she was forced to have an abortion.

And despite the emotional energy the Johnsons and their group spent fighting this one violator, the other South Side pollution threats persist. Children still gather in a playground near the municipal dump that handles both city and hazardous waste. Some residents continue to fish for their dinner in the murky waters that snake around both factory and home, while others grow tomatoes in soil known to be laced with pesticides and lead.

Matthew Dunn, chief of environmental control for state Attorney General Roland W. Burris, is sorely aware that the time he spent on the Waste Management case was “time I could not spend on the lagoons or the refineries or the paint factories there.”

Some cleanup is under way. One former steel mill site is being taken care of by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because, through the bankrupt company’s default on federal loans, it is in government hands. Illinois is cleaning two other abandoned sites, but so many unattended dumps are clustered around them that state authorities believe the whole area should be declared a Superfund site.

“The sites basically are on top of each other, so this office suggested that the cumulative effect of these types of exposure should be given some weight,” said Mr. Dunn. “It’s one thing to have one landfill out somewhere and score it. But when you have one landfill in the midst of other landfills, where you put a boat in and it’s corroded away in front of your eyes, that’s a little different.”

Because the residents drink municipal water, not the polluted groundwater, none of the 50 sites ever have scored as a high enough threat to make it onto Superfund. There is not enough evidence, in other words, of a direct risk to health.

So, in many ways, People for Community Recovery is back where it started – trying to gather proof of health effects. Illinois officials have found high cancer rates in the South Side, but are uncertain whether the incidence tops the already high rate for Chicago African Americans. An EPA study showed that 28 million pounds of toxic chemicals anually pour into South Side air, elevating the risk of cancer 100 to 1,000 times – but the study wasn’t designed to trace the actual effects on health.

Thinking of Action

 In response to a petition by People for Community Recovery seven years ago, federal health officials will soon begin a health assessment in the area – but it will merely record the types of risks and plot out what future studies need to be done.

Impatient, Cheryl Johnson says People for Community Recovery has asked a local environmental toxicologist to do a formal health survey in the community. “Whenever we did our own survey,” she says, public officials or local corporations “were always able to tear it up.” She hopes that such a study might finally prompt a “major super-cleanup” and “force these companies to do minimal pollution, and pollution prevention.”

Ms. Johnson ponders other ideas – like starting a comprehensive community recycling program, or working on a joint community improvement program with the local corporations. “They are our only neighbors,” she says. But she confesses that the little group – working out of a storefront in a grim mall surrounded by broken glass – does not have the money or expertise to realize these dreams.

Her mother fell ill this summer, exhausted, Ms. Johnson says, from her organizing work and speaking engagements before similar fledgling grassroots groups across the country. And although nearly 1,000 residents are members of People for Community Recovery, the steering board has only five people. “We aren’t able to get enough of a core group,” she says, in a community already weighed down by high unemployment, poverty and poor housing conditions.

Robert Ginsberg, the environmental consultant working on the health survey for the group, says communities with few resources, like Altgeld, suffer most from the way public policy responds to environmental threats.

“The attitude is, unless you can prove this is a cause of sickness, we’re not going to do anything about it, or we’ll just do odds and ends,” he says. “Common sense would tell you this is a horrible place, it’s not good for health, and the question is, ‘What are you going to do about it?”‘

9/21/92 NLJ S3, (col. 1)