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Despite recent initiatives toward sustainability, “dirty industry” still threatens the livelihood of Chicago’s south side

By Katie Jahns & Julia Mkrtychian

Graphic by Katie Jahns

When life-long Southsider Tom Shepherd moved to Pullman in 1971, he was already familiar with the environmental concerns that plagued the neighborhood. While Pullman has undergone a transformation since then, Shepherd said his memories of nauseating smells, grit, and grime are difficult to forget.

“Whenever I would drive downtown, it was like you were driving through a fire,” he said. “[The air] was thick, like there was just smoke. There was so much pollution. Everyone was burning coal at the time; it was just a filthy mess.”

Unfortunately, Shepherd’s memories of dense smog and windy days when odors from nearby landfills flooded the area are not isolated to his own experiences or Pullman’s. For most 9th and 10th Ward residents, this has become an unfortunate reality of life in the South side.

Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF) director Peggy Salazar, said the city’s historic division between the North and South sides are largely to blame. As the leader of an organization that dedicates itself to environmental sustainability, pollution prevention, and environmental education, the fight to remove major polluters from the South side is one Salazar is all too familiar with. But this struggle is not specific to Pullman alone.

“We [the 9th and 10th Wards] have very similar histories. With Pullman’s history as an industrial community for the Pullman Palace Car Company, and the Southeast side’s history with steel mills, there’s a lot of mirror imaging going on here,” Salazar said. “The situations are very similar: Pullman has properties that are contaminated and so do we.”

Salazar said that in both neighborhoods, much of the soil contains toxins that pose potential health risks, leading much of the land to be capped with blacktop, and necessitating that any gardens use raised beds with fresh soil. However, the difference between these two communities with similar histories has become evident in the last several years, as while Pullman has been targeted for revitalization, the 10th Ward continues to be used as “a place to house dirty industry,” according to Salazar.

Since its designation as a national monument in 2015, Pullman has made a concerted effort toward sustainability, including soil remediation on the once toxic factory site which will soon be used as the new visitor center. When Method, an environmentally friendly cleaning supply company, moved into Pullman several years ago, civic organization member and Pullman resident Pat Brannon said it brought about a discussion of the town’s direction toward becoming a more sustainable community.

“There has been talk that ‘let’s tweak ourselves to be a really environmentally friendly place’ and Method could be part of that, more solar power could be part of that,” he said.

Shepherd reiterated a similar sentiment, explaining some of the clean initiatives he created when he was president of SETF roughly seven years ago. He said that while having to raise a family in Pullman when it was at its worst, he spent much of his time ensuring that his children and the greater neighborhood wouldn’t be burdened with toxic pollutants.

Shepherd highlights a few projects he felt most proud of, one being the institution of a 30-year moratorium on landfills in the South side, which ultimately destroyed the industry completely. Additionally, he forced manufacturers of petcoke, a byproduct of the oil refining process, to keep their product from directly interacting with Southside soil. Now, seven years later, the neighborhood has greater access to more clean, green spaces due to Shepherd’s former initiatives, and even in retirement he hopes to bring “clean and green” back to Pullman.

“Lake Calumet has over 2,000 acres of property and while that belongs to the port, we’re hoping to get about 280 acres of it for green space that allows for things like hiking and other outdoor activities,” Shepherd said. “Similarly we want to create new bike paths in the area. This goes hand in hand with efforts to open up green space, and for a number of years we have been encouraging this. We have a major annual bike tour from Pullman to Indiana, ending in one of the [steel] mill towns there, but we want to bring more to Pullman.”

But while Pullman has seen progress in recent years, other south side communities are still burdened by polluted industry. Just east of Pullman, youth organizer for the Southeast Alliance and second-generation Southsider, Oscar Sanchez is currently participating in a hunger strike to protest General Iron moving to his neighborhood, an area of the city that already houses close to 70 industrial operations. Sanchez said that he doesn’t want to see any more harmful industry move into his area, witnessing first-hand the negative impact it can have on resident’s physical and mental health.

“I always say this, when you take away our health, you take away our wealth,” he said. “Because you have folks who don’t have insurance, because they have low paying jobs, they have to take out loans and then become in debt having to pay off those bills.”

A 2020 Air Quality and Health Report identified chronic disease as the “leading driver” behind Chicago’s “nine-year life expectancy gap between Black and white residents” as well as the Latinx population. Additionally, the report showed that some low income communities are ten times more vulnerable than others, and concluded that, “structural racism and economic hardship contribute to this gap,” as polluted communities are less likely to have access to “health care and good jobs that can mitigate negative impacts.

With air pollution, which is highly concentrated in South side neighborhoods, being linked with increased risk for chronic illnesses — such as heart and lung disease, asthma, and cancer — compounded with the fact that Chicago’s fine particulate matter pollution levels are “among the highest in the nation,” the effects of these poor environmental conditions are both evident and prevalent.

Another task force member, Maritza Darling-Ramos, said she has felt the effects first hand. As someone with asthma, Darling-Ramos said her symptoms are often exacerbated in certain areas of her neighborhood as opposed to outside the community. She also said that there are many more subtle effects that come with growing up in a polluted area.

“Just thinking about having the exact same playgrounds [that I grew up playing in] being infested with toxic chemicals as well as manganese, it’s just like, why haven’t we done anything?” she said. “We deserve clean air just as much as the people on the north side.”

The report also said that, “The City of Chicago is committed to systematic regulatory reform aimed at mitigating air pollution and protecting our communities, particularly those located near areas zoned for heavy manufacturing.” However, despite publicly stating this goal, the city has yet to deny the permits allowing General Iron to move from Lincoln Park, a predominantly white neighborhood, to the 10th ward, one of the communities at a higher risk, according to the city’s report.

Sanchez said that although the company has multiple violations against them for foul odors, metal fragments and fires, these violations have not been seriously taken into consideration in the decision to relocate them to the 10th ward.

“These industries take away an incentive to seek the American dream,” Sanchez said. “Here, it’s like, what is the American dream to places that are covered by all this pollution? Is it really the American dream, or is it looking to survive?”

Recent college graduate Luis Cabrales goes even further and said that the reason Chicago’s mayor has done little in response to General Iron’s relocation to the 10th ward comes as a result of the company’s recent rebranding. As the environmental organizer for Southeast Youth Alliance, an organization centered around developing the next generation of community leaders on the Southeast side of Chicago, the movement against General Iron’s relocation into his hometown is one he has approached with great passion.

Living in the 10th ward and experiencing just how harmful these industries are to his community, Cabrales has grown tired of sensational words like “state-of-the-art,” “green,” and “sustainable” that result in empty and unfulfilled promises. He said that the only option moving forward is to stop new members of “dirty industry” from moving into the area and working to remediate the harm they have brought to local residents.

“We honor and acknowledge the neighborhood’s history with the steel industry, but it’s time to move forward,” Cabrales says. “We are not about the same industry, the same jobs, or the same promises they promised us before, which has only led us to find out that we have lead in our soil. Whoever’s here now, they’re not going anywhere and we understand that, but moving forward, we have to start holding them accountable and focusing on our own communities so that in the future, we don’t get these shit industries put in our backyards again.”

Contact Reporters:

Katie Jahns

Julia Mkrtychian

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