A student passes by the Cook County Jail, on 26th Street, as demolition takes place. Sept. 8, 2021. Mist from the water cannons spray down the building in an effort to limit dust from escaping the outside the county walls. (Sebastián Hidalgo/City Bureau)

Cook County Jail Demolition: Five Fast Facts

In June, contractors demolished two dormitories at Cook County Jail, filling surrounding Little Village with airborne pollutants

Longtime La Villita resident Natividad Martinez wakes up every morning to tend to her plants just outside her front door. But by 7 a.m., she said, dust from the demolition of two Cook County Jail dormitories about a mile east forces her back inside as her eyes begin to flare up. She boils fresh chamomile and then moistens a cloth to wash her eyes with the herb, a natural healing remedy taught to her by her mother from Puebla, Mexico.

“Because my eyes are infected, the dust is what bothers me the most because I feel like I have garbage inside my eyes, and they puff up a lot,” Martinez said in Spanish. “I have always had puffy eyes, but now, with the [demolition], it is worse.”

In late June, demolition contractors began to tear down the two dormitories, located along 26th St., to make room for a recreational area in the next year. And Little Village residents, like Martinez, say they are experiencing respiratory issues believed to be linked to high levels of contaminants

Martinez informed her doctor that dust from the Cook County Jail demolition flew into her eyes, that she experienced discomfort in her throat and that she had trouble breathing. Her doctor said if she experienced throat pain after the demolition occurred, toxic particles may have entered her nose. 

Her son described her vision to be similar to a kaleidoscope—a vivid vision of multi-colored patterns of sequences, objects or elements. She also accumulated styes because of the constant bacteria entering her eyes. 

“Ever since this demolition happened, I [am experiencing symptoms] similar to a cold, but it is not a cold,” Martinez said in Spanish. “The doctor prescribed me to [cleanse] my nose with a nasal spray and [lubricate] my eyes with eye drops.”

Cook County officials stated that their contractors would not use explosives to destroy the dormitories and that demolition work would follow a selective process where sections of the buildings would be dismantled “piece by piece.” They used a similar method to demolish the jail’s Divisions 3 and 17 in 2016-2018. 

This is notably different from the botched Hilco Redevelopment Partners implosion of a former Crawford coal plant last year, in which contractors demolished a large smokestack with explosives, blanketing the surrounding Little Village neighborhood in dust. Cook County Bureau of Asset Management (BAM) officials hired air technicians to provide daily air monitoring on the site, as requested by environmental advocates and Little Village residents, to prevent a similar occurrence of what happened at the former Crawford plant. 

Yet some residents who live near the jail say dust still resettled outside of their homes, causing them to experience dizziness and contract respiratory illnesses including asthma, throat inflammation and irritations surrounding the face.

Natividad Martinez rubs the tears in her eyes inside her home in Little Village. (Sebastián Hidalgo/City Bureau)

Members of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) say they believe more demolitions and the proliferation of pollution-generating industries in Little Village are in conjunction with residents having respiratory diseases along with other health conditions.

“The air around us needs to be seriously considered or looked at through a health and environmental justice lens, so that we can make sure that we’re a little bit more responsible about these [demolition] projects,” said Karen Canales Salas, LVEJO’s environmental justice education coordinator. “We have residents that cannot breathe and are engulfed in a cloud of dust.”

As demolition continues into 2022, here are five facts you need to know about how it’s being done:

Why did Cook County move forward with demolition?

In 2016, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart announced that the board would initiate a public safety reform to demolish several county jail buildings to reduce the jail’s capacity and build an exercise facility. 

The demolition project, which included the destruction of two jail divisions in 2016 through 2018 and is supervised by the Cook County BAM, would allow the state to cut over $3 million in building operating costs and $188 million in capital costs, projected over a decade. 

The jail dormitories that are currently being demolished, labeled Division 1 and 1A, have operated since the early 1900s with a deteriorating structure that officials called “costly to operate.”  

“As we see declines in the number of detainees, it is logical and fiscally responsible to reduce the number of divisions at the jail,” Preckwinkle said in the 2016 press release

While it is not clear how much the recreational building will cost, demolishing other sections of the jail cost over $2.5 million each, according to officials. 

Officials stated reducing the population at the jail has been carried out by the creation of mental health services, intervention programs and electronic home monitoring. In public meetings held this year, officials said the jail population dropped by half, which it has, from around 10,000 in the early 2000s to around 5,000 people currently incarcerated there.

How were the buildings demolished?

Contractors are not using explosives to remove the buildings. They are using machines called industrial grapplers to demolish the site in parts. Water cannons are positioned on the building to spray down any dust and debris.

PM10 refers to airborne particulate matter that is often visible, like dust. In a printed bulletin, officials wrote that work would cease when PM10 levels equal or exceed 0.150 mg/m^3—the federal air quality standard—and when winds are higher than fifteen miles per hour or gusts were over twenty miles per hour. According to air technicians, the demolition site is well within those standards.

The final remediation plan—to ensure dust control and safe removal of toxic airborne particles like lead and asbestos—was prepared by a contractor and checked by an environmental engineer consultant to ensure compliance with the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA), and other standards. It was reviewed and approved by the County before the start of demolition, according to the Cook County BAM.

In a statement provided to City Bureau by email, a BAM spokesperson wrote that High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter machines were used to contain any runaway particles within the work area during asbestos remediation. Asbestos materials were watered down and stored inside two layers of disposal bags. Damaged lead paint on surfaces were also disposed of, but intact lead paint surfaces remained on site. 

Contractors did not find contaminants in soil samples; therefore, they did not implement a removal plan. Since August, the soil remains on site and is covered with a soil cap. 

Non-hazardous recyclable materials such as copper and steel were sent to recycling centers and other nonhazardous materials were sent to landfills.

Were residents informed about the demolition?

The Cook County Bureau of Asset Management hosted virtual community meetings and sent bulletins to homes within an area mostly bounded by Cermak Rd., California Ave., 31st St. and Kedzie Ave.

The department sends a monthly email newsletter that gives an overview of demolition activity. By August, about 260 residents had subscribed for the newsletter. As of December 9, the newsletter had 419 subscribers, according to Audrey Jonas, a public information officer of Cook County BAM.

“We are trying to reach as many people as possible to not just educate people that this demolition is happening, but to hopefully instill trust in this process and answer the community’s concerns around their safety,” Jonas said.

Jonas explained that residents can view the information on the Cook County site if they did not receive a bulletin or subscribe for the newsletter. But that adds a barrier: Latinx residents are less likely to have a computer or internet access at home. 

Calling Cook County’s demolition information line at (847) 378-1704 can also be difficult. When City Bureau called the line several times throughout the week, the call went straight to voicemail. The operator said to wait twenty-four hours for a response.

“At first, [residents] could not leave messages because there wasn’t an automated message before,” said Edith Tovar, a LVEJO organizer, who also called the hotline. “We have heard from folks that there is not an actual person picking up the call.”

Tovar said a parent was calling the line because they witnessed dust spreading through her block but was not able to get a hold of someone.

“They give us this number, and we’re calling, and the voicemail tells us to wait [for a response] within twenty-four hours,” Tovar said. “Well, the emergencies are happening now.”

How is the air being monitored?

Cook County is providing daily air monitoring readings on a public Airtable. They hired environmental health agency Carnow Conibear and Associates to conduct air monitoring of the jail. Air technicians are required to provide readings on days of demolition work, which are then uploaded onto the County’s site

The monitors are placed between 5.5 and six feet above the ground on tripods with a post above, and air monitors will detect all PM10 particles including dust, mold, pollen and more.

These air monitors read when demolition days begin until when work stops, usually around 3:30 p.m. Air quality measures are not taken for a full twenty-four-hour period. According to a statement from County officials, demolition work does not always start at 7 a.m. 

Occasionally, air monitors move depending on weather conditions and when the wind changes direction. 

What is being detected so far?

According to the data, PM10 particles were recorded exceeding 0.150 mg/m^3 for short periods of time throughout some demolition days. The most concerning day was July 23, when air monitors detected PM10 levels nearly doubled the standard number to 0.291 mg/m^3 The number dropped significantly in a matter of minutes only to rise again later in the day. 

In another emailed statement, an air technician recorded the number 0.291 mg/m^3 and wrote down that dust was not escaping the site. The technician concluded that the brief spike was probably caused by a water mist machine that was spraying toward the downwind air monitors. Because the levels peaked for only five minutes, work continued.

But in order for particle levels to exceed the NAAQS standard, significant levels must be present for twenty-four hours, experts say. Monitors are not taking measurements for twenty-four-hour periods. 

Monitors also only measure PM10, not smaller particulate matter like PM2.5.

“Measuring PM10 is a sledgehammer approach to measuring air pollution,”  Brian Urbaszewski, a director at the Respiratory Health Association, said. “The chunkier stuff [PM10] could cause bronchial irritation––coughing and sneezing. But the really small [particulate matter, like PM2.5] are the dangerous ones. The really small particles actually make it into the bloodstream. And that’s what’s associated with things like heart attacks and deaths.”

Regardless if PM10 levels exceed the standard number, prolonged exposure can still draw health concerns for many residents who live nearby. 

“None of it is good,” Dr. Shelby Hatch, assistant professor of chemistry at Northwestern University, said. “That’s still a significant amount of particulate matter in the air. [The standard number 0.150 mg/m^3] means that it’s not as problematic. But it could still be problematic for [vulnerable groups]–people who already have asthma, partially due to breathing in the polluted air for so long.” 

Independent studies, environmental justice groups, and the City’s own 2020 Air Quality and Health Report often point to Little Village as a community struggling with the worst air quality, high asthma rates, and other social vulnerabilities. 

For decades, residents like Martinez, have had to rely on creative solutions to mitigate the harm caused by pollution. “Who is going to help me [recover] from this [illness]? [The City] doesn’t care. They throw away dust, and we breathe it,” Martinez said.

City Bureau will follow up with a second story on this issue. If you are experiencing similar issues, email publicheroesandsecrets@gmail.com.

Correction, December 17, 2021: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the City of Chicago hired air technicians, but it was the Cook County Bureau of Asset Management. The story was also updated with the most recent number of newsletter subscribers.

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Leslie Hurtado is a former 2021 City Bureau fellow, and a multimedia journalist who is currently a producing fellow at WTTW Chicago. She is focused on covering stories on communities, race and immigration. This is her first time writing for the Weekly.

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