Katie Hill

A new coalition of community and environmental activists met for the first time last Thursday to discuss their effort to fight pollution on the South Side. Members of four groups from McKinley Park, Little Village, Pilsen, and the Southeast Side convened in a crowded gymnasium at the Rauner Family YMCA. The impromptu meeting space was organized after attendees quickly overcrowded the small side room originally intended for the gathering.

In attendance were members of Neighbors for Environmental Justice, the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, the Pilsen Alliance, and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. Each group gave a short presentation highlighting their work to bring attention and accountability to “dirty” industries in their neighborhoods.

The newest of these groups, McKinley Park’s Neighbors for Environmental Justice (N4EJ), was organized this summer in response to the MAT Asphalt plant, which was constructed last winter and spring at the edge of McKinley Park with insufficient notice to nearby residents. At the meeting, N4EJ talked about how they responded by installing air monitors in their neighborhood and pushing for reform of the Illinois Environmental Protection Act to increase transparency: when polluting industries apply for permits with the Illinois EPA, the agency would have to notify the relevant state senators and representatives.

The Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke (SSCBP), which successfully lobbied against open-air petcoke storage facilities along the Calumet River, has now set their sights on other local pollutants, including brain-damaging manganese dust at facilities operated by S.H. Bell and Watco Transloading. At the meeting, they spoke about their efforts to have manganese levels monitored, as well as their opposition to a proposed facility in which to store heavy metal-rich sediment dredged from the Calumet River. The Confined Disposal Facility (“a fancy word for landfill,” joked SSCBP organizer Gina Remerez) would store “sediment too contaminated to be placed in the water,” according to a brochure from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The event that spurred the creation of the coalition occured when the Fisk Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in Pilsen that shuttered in 2012, applied to operate as a “low sulfur” diesel-burning power plant, and has already been burning diesel fuel in parts of the site, according to the Pilsen Alliance. Beyond the increase in diesel emissions—which community organizers say will increase the risk of respiratory issues, especially for children—there are complaints that the public comment process for Fisk’s permit application was poorly publicized, the Tribune reported. Community organizers saw the need to bring their individual efforts together to address the more systemic roots of their problems.

“We don’t want to be playing whack-a-mole forever with these facilities and developments,” said Robert Beedle, a founding member of Neighbors For Environmental Justice. He hopes the new coalition of community activists can “figure out the issues where we need to lean in together and use our collective power,” while maintaining independence and autonomy to address the needs of their respective communities.

This may prove to be a critical moment for the communities in attendance. This spring, the city’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) launched its Industrial Corridor Modernization Initiative to reevaluate and potentially reshape several of Chicago’s industrial corridors in Ravenswood, Kinzie, and Little Village. Some activists worry that the piecemeal approach may push dirty or otherwise undesirable industry south, into predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods that have historically faced environmental racism. In Little Village, the planning process is currently underway; in October the DPD will host the third and final working group, which is comprised of twenty-five “representatives from government agencies, business sector organizations, and resident groups,” according to the DPD website, and a plan of the draft will be released for public comment in December.

Organizers believe that the key to more equitable development of the South Side industrial corridors is engaging with their communities and proactively defining the development they want to see. “If people don’t rise up and make their voices heard, then their voices will be disregarded,“ Beedle said. “We do not hear people saying, ‘I want to see a concrete factory and an asphalt plant.’…. We hear people talk about things like indoor agriculture, they talk about things like affordable housing, they talk about things like bringing social services in.”

Other organizers also embraced a proactive stance on making their community’s needs heard. A flier distributed at Thursday’s meeting by LVEJO emphasized the roles of retail and manufacturing in the local economy. However, LVEJO members also argue that Little Village lacks the basic resources to address poverty and health concerns. According to numbers provided by the organization, Little Village is home to the second highest grossing retail strip in Chicago, but has less than one-fifth the city-wide average of park or open space per capita. Organizers say these concerns will need to be addressed as the plan to modernize the Little Village industrial corridor begins.

The solution, they say, requires industry that is cooperative and integrated with the surrounding neighborhood. At the cross-community meeting, Jose Requena of the Pilsen Alliance suggested food preparation or industrial hemp as “clean” industries that he’d like to see.

Organizers argue that sustainable development doesn’t just mean cleaner air and water; it also means better jobs. “We are not against industry,” explained Martita Torrez Allen of SSCBP during their presentation. “However, we are opposed to corporations jeopardizing the health of community members and workers to cut costs and maximize their own profits.” These industries bring employment that is typically “low-paying, temporary, and without benefits,” Torrez Allen said. “We don’t need those kinds of jobs in our community.”

Creating an environment that attracts clean industry and good employers requires a unified effort from community activists. “The tree-hugger versus labor mentality is outdated,” Torrez Allen explained in an interview. “We need to bridge that gap.” She recalled a time when “environmentalism was seen as an elitist thing,” reserved for the upper-middle class who could afford to be eco-conscious. “It’s another thing when you have to work.” But now, she said, the interest of labor and environmental groups need to be united: “If we lose the planet, we lose everything.”

Organizers know that this process won’t be easy or fast. Beedle acknowledged that it’s going to take years, even decades. Communities will need to come together on a unified platform and guide development to meet their needs. “We want what anyone in the city of Chicago, or anyone in the United States would want,” Beedle concluded, “which is to be respected and to be considered.”

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Ian Hodgson is a contributing editor at the Weekly. He last wrote about urban fishing at Sherman Park.

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