Lizzie Smith

Late in March, the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards heard testimony on a piece of new legislation from 10th Ward Alderwoman Susan Sadlowski Garza. Garza’s ordinance, which passed both the committee and, the following day, City Council, regulates manganese-bearing companies in Chicago by prohibiting new facilities from being built and preventing existing ones from expanding. It also requires that companies that handle bulk materials with manganese have a 150-foot setback from areas that are zoned residential, and that manganese-bearing facilities submit quarterly reports to the Department of Planning and Development detailing the amount of manganese passing through or stored in their facility.  

It’s the first legislative salvo in a months-long battle between residents, federal and city agencies, and heavy industry over manganese emissions on the Far Southeast Side. In January 2017, community members discovered that EPA-mandated air monitors had detected potentially dangerous levels of manganese in the area. Initially, S.H. Bell, a nationwide materials handling company whose second-largest warehouse facility is on the Southeast Side, was flagged as the culprit and required to install its own air monitors at one of its Chicago facilities (which it did, after a lawsuit and fine). Since then, another company, Watco Transloading, has also been required to install monitors after city inspectors found dust emissions during a survey of their storage terminal. And in late April, the Chicago Department of Public Health told Southeast Side residents that soil samples taken from near the S.H. Bell facility showed “substantial toxic manganese contamination,” according to a press release from the National Resources Defense Council.

Manganese, a mineral found in foods like black tea and cloves, is an important nutrient in relatively small doses, aiding in bone formation and metabolism. But it’s toxic at higher frequencies: a study in East Liverpool—an Ohio town home to another S.H. Bell facility—found that manganese levels were linked to low IQ scores in children. (A team of UIC researchers are doing a preliminary study of health effects on the Southeast Side.) It’s also the second dangerous pollutant that Southeast Siders have had to grapple with in recent memory, after a controversy over emissions of petroleum coke a few years ago that ended with a class action settlement for residents.

But during the public comment section portion of the Zoning Committee meeting, testimony on Garza’s ordinance from community residents and organizers, as well as allied advocacy groups like the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University Law School’s Bluhm Legal Clinic and Illinois Sierra Club, was decidedly mixed. Most who spoke declared themselves neutral on the legislation; their complaints ranged from the lack of a specific monitoring scheme to an exemption for manufacturing operations. More broadly, though, organizers say that the only acceptable course of action is completely banning  manganese from residential areas, and working to transform the Southeast Side from its traditional home as a repository for industrial operations to an environmentally sustainable part of the city.

One issue with the ordinance, according to Debbie Chizewer, a lawyer with the Environmental Advocacy Center, is that it doesn’t fix the type of monitoring required under the city’s current dust rules. As written right now, the rules require that facilities monitor and report their emissions using PM10 monitoring, which measures the frequency of dust particles, but not their composition. Chizewer, who spoke with the Weekly in early April, instead recommends that the city’s Department of Public Health (DPH) require filter metals monitoring, which can determine the composition of dust emissions, letting city officials know how much manganese there is in the air.

On April 18, the DPH proposed an amendment to those rules that would in fact require filter metals monitoring for some manganese handlers. (The changes will be open for public comment until May 18.) Under the proposed changes, manganese-bearing facilities would be forced to enclose their operations. If they fail to do so, they will have to install filter metals monitoring. Still, Chizewer says this isn’t good enough. “We want to see that the rule includes enclosures and metals monitoring, not one or the other,” she said, adding that she would also like the DPH to institute a temporary moratorium on outdoor storage of manganese.

Chizewer also objects to an exemption in the ordinance for manufacturers that may emit manganese as a byproduct. “Manufacturing is still a source of manganese, even if they’re not storing materials outside,” she said. “Let’s not just exempt that—let’s make sure our plans focus on all the sources.”

On April 24, at the Vodak-East Side public library branch on 106th Street, federal, state, and city officials held a meeting with community and advocacy groups to talk over the manganese issue. There, according to Chizewer, they discussed both the new ordinance and proposed amendments to the dust rules, as well as how best to communicate with both local residents and healthcare providers about manganese-related health issues. “It seems that the community’s cries and calls for more attention are starting to be heard. There’s definitely more attention being paid to the manganese problem,” said Chizewer. “But we’re going to keep pushing until we feel the community’s needs are met and they are protected.” In an email to the Weekly, Garza said that her office will continue to monitor the manganese problem, noting that “this ordinance is not a one and done.”

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Looking past the specifics of both the ordinance and dust rules update, community organizers also insist on a more general view, arguing that the current paradigm around land-use on the Southeast Side—large swaths of land set aside for industry—is unsustainable. At the moment, a wide industrial corridor runs along the banks of the Calumet River into the lake of the same name. The vast majority of that corridor is also zoned as a Planned Manufacturing District, a special designation the city applies to certain areas in order to encourage manufacturing—most businesses don’t need special use permits or approval from the alderman to move into a PMD. It’s by far the city’s largest PMD.

Planned Manufacturing Districts were first implemented in Chicago in the late eighties, the result of community organizing in response to industrial flight out of the city. The first group of PMDs were in the Loop and Near North Side, and it wasn’t until 2005 that the ordinance establishing the Lake Calumet PMD was passed.

A 2004 Crain’s Chicago article notes that it was an attempt to placate manufacturers worried about encroachment from residential and commercial development in the area. “In the same way that our lakefront is protected for open space and recreation, our industrial corridors need to be protected as a citywide resource for creating jobs, tax revenues and economic opportunity,” said William Trumbull, then-deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Planning and Development.

At the Zoning Committee hearing, Garza lamented the fact that she can’t prevent companies from buying and selling land under non-disclosure agreements, limiting the amount of oversight she has when it comes to new development. When someone suggested downzoning to prohibit industry, Garza pointed out that “you can’t downzone a Planned Manufacturing District. I’ve had that conversation already. If I could buy the river and make it residential, that would be great, but I was told you can’t downzone a Planned Manufacturing District.” Olga Bautista, a community organizer with the Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF), put it more bluntly: “Being a PMD is just a race to the bottom.”

In other words, advocates say, protecting industry has come at the expense of the local community. “Right now, this community is here to accommodate the revitalization that’s going to go on everywhere else,” said Peggy Salazar, director of SETF. “And that’s one of the reasons that they’re putting businesses that handle construction debris. They want to put businesses here that will make things more economical to do elsewhere. What’s economical for people elsewhere is costly for us.”

PMDs are more flexible land-use tools than they might first appear, even if their emphasis is on retaining industry. Often, they only firmly prohibit residential buildings. In an MIT master’s thesis, Haley Jordahl, now an urban planner in Denver, argues that the first PMDs in Chicago have adapted well to the fact that the bulk of jobs in those areas are now in non-industrial sectors. Still, one of the original North Side PMDs was repealed last June in an attempt to allow for more mixed-use development in the area, including new residential housing.

But even if PMDs can potentially adapt to non-industrial uses, Salazar says that part of the problem is the area has trouble attracting the right kind of companies. “We have open space, but most of it is contaminated. Developers are hesitant to develop property that’s going to cost money to do environmental cleanups on. The solution, or at least the practice that has occurred, is simply to put something else that’s polluted on it.” She cited the example of the 440-acre US Steel South Works site, which has stood vacant since 1992, and has already endured one failed development plan. In a prophetic turn, the latest developer announced on April 20 that its plans for the site would be delayed because of worries about “soil contamination.”

At hearings and in interviews, organizers, allies, and Garza all repeatedly likened the ad hoc approach of enforcement against polluters to a game of “Whack-a-mole,” noting that discovery of pollution and punishment tend to take place on a case-by-case basis. Though repealing the PMD wouldn’t clean up any contamination already there, removing some of the industrial zoning could be one way of charting a more environmentally sustainable path forward for the area.

Garza told the Weekly that she is “in support of reevaluating the Calumet Planned Manufacturing District,” and that the Department of Planning and Development is planning a “broader overhaul of the entire city’s PMDs.” In the meantime, she and SETF have allied to fight another project in the area—a landfill run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that would serve as a disposing ground for material dredged from the bottom of the Calumet River, according to CBS Chicago.

Bautista argues that land-use planning should also take place with more community input, and focus primarily on environmental sustainability. “Globally, there’s a movement to divest from fossil fuels, and to work on renewable sources of energy to sustain cities like Chicago.… That’s the only way forward.” She advocates retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient, and increasing the use of wind turbines, solar panels, and large-scale composting, though she adds that “those ideas are always secondary, and they’re secondary to industry.”

Salazar says that, despite the praise Mayor Rahm Emanuel has attracted for his environmental policy, there’s still a lack of attention paid to the consequences of letting industry flourish indiscriminately on the city’s periphery. “No one’s going to want to come in the current state it’s in. Nobody’s going to want to come when they have to ride a bike around odors so offensive they have to retreat indoors,” she said. “It looks this way because of the industry that’s here.”

At its core, organizers say, the struggle to monitor and restrict manganese is one of systemic inequity; as a representative from the Illinois Sierra Club put it in her testimony in front of the Zoning Committee, “Kids in Lincoln Park don’t have to get their toenails tested for manganese.” And so, though both Salazar and Bautista commend Garza for her work on the ordinance and her willingness to listen to community input, they emphasize that they want polluters banned from the city completely. “This should be illegal. It’s not just zoning issues—it’s about crimes against humanity,” said Bautista. “It should be criminal for companies to be emitting toxic particulate matter into residential communities.”

Toward the end of the March 27 committee hearing, fifth-grader Pilar Rodriguez, Bautista’s daughter, gave testimony as a representative of the Rebel Bells, a radical collective of girls from the Southeast Side. While her mother had registered herself as neutral on the ordinance, Rodriguez said that she opposed it (“Mom, please don’t be mad!”) because “we need the city and this committee to completely protect me and all the kids living on the Southeast Side.”

Rodriguez concluded with a Malcolm X quote: “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there is no progress. If you pull it out all the way that is not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And, they have not even pulled out the knife, much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.”

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Christian Belanger is a senior editor at the Weekly and a reporting fellow at City Bureau. He’s lived in Chicago since 2013. Currently in Bridgeport, he enjoys long walks up the Palmisano Park hill, and burning vegetables he means to roast. He also wrote this week about agricultural zoning law in the city for the Weekly.

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