Jazmin Sierra noticed the smell first. A sickly sweet, kind of plasticky odor that settled thick in the air. The sixteen-year-old had been away the whole summer, so when the fall semester started at Little Village Lawndale High School, the experience was overwhelming. It was an odor that Sierra knew all too well, a smell that often wafted from the nearby factory—a manufacturer of paint-coated containers.
After a few days back, she became resigned to it again. “I don’t really differentiate the smell, unless it’s a very, very strong smell, where I’m like ‘Oh my god, what is that?’” Sierra says. “I’ve been living [in Little Village] my whole life so I’m really used to it. It’s been going on for a long time.”
Sierra is sitting in a circle of desks with several other students. Every Tuesday afternoon, the Environmental Justice Club meets in an empty science classroom on the second floor of Little Village Lawndale High School. The meetings are hosted by the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO).
On this afternoon in February, Karen Canales Salas, the education coordinator at LVEJO, calls the group to attention and begins assigning duties to the students for the coming weeks. “Sylvia, can you take care of the flyers?”
The Environmental Justice Club formed the year prior as a way for students to work on the new school garden and get involved with local environmental issues, of which there is no shortage. The high school sits smack in the middle of a Chicago industrial corridor. The remains of the Crawford coal plant, shut down in 2012, are currently being demolished half a mile away. Other active factories loom nearby.
The smokestacks from the one that produces the smell—BWAY Corporation—puff out clouds of emissions directly behind the high school.
Ash Martinez, an EJ Club member since its start, spoke up. “I don’t live here in the community so coming here to school and breathing this kind of air, it does make your eyes open up, like ‘Oh yeah there’s something going on here.’”
The group nods in agreement. Sometimes the smell is so strong, it makes them ill. “I get migraines when I come to school,” Sylvia Meraz says, clearing her throat and speaking seriously. “I feel so physically sick sometimes.”
Just under two decades ago, Chicago Public Schools promised to build a new high school to ease urgent overcrowding in the local schools. But the plans were put on a seemingly endless monetary hold. On Mother’s Day 2001, fourteen Little Village residents staged a hunger strike demanding the school be built. Their calls for change were finally met after nineteen days.
Once the school was funded, there was a search for a spot big enough for the building. The only available location was surrounded by industry. “Little Village’s land use is forty percent for industrial use,” said Nancy Meza, a community organizer at LVEJO. At their main offices in Little Village, there is a stack of papers in front of her, a template for a community brochure about BWAY’s pollution to the side. Meza has been working on this issue for a while.
“Because there isn’t a lot of space available here [in Little Village] for park space, for institutions, they decided that the high school would be placed in the industrial corridor,” she continued.
The school finally opened its doors at the corner of Kostner Avenue and 31st Street in 2005. “People were really excited,” said Meza. “I don’t think there had been much thought of the consequence it would have.”
Activists campaigns like this one were not new to the community. The neighborhood has long focused on struggles for justice. For years LVEJO and the other residents had pushed for the closing of the Crawford plant right in the heart of the community, and another just five miles away in Pilsen.
According to the City of Chicago, some, if not most, of Little Village properties are within 400 feet of a truck route, and a 2018 review by the Department of Planning and Development found that 24.7 percent of businesses in Little Village are industrial, with 21.9 percent in transportation—primarily freight trucks.
Students from the high school not only breathe in the fumes from industry, but dodge semi trucks speeding past the school. Truck traffic is expected to get much heavier as a massive warehousing facility is slated for construction on the site of the old coal plant, with a Target warehouse announced as its anchor tenant. The demolition of the plant began in April with the controversial collapse of its 100-year-old smokestack, which released a thick plume of potentially toxic dust across the neighborhood, causing its own set of pollution concerns.
Locals also fear that three blocks away from the high school, at Zapata Elementary Academy, the expansion of the Unilever mayonnaise factory will put younger children at risk and cause even more truck traffic in the community. A study conducted by LVEJO found that 1.3 diesel trucks pass Little Village Lawndale High School every minute.
Some of those are headed for BWAY. But in the case of this company, the harsh smell is an even bigger concern to residents than the traffic.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are 8,067 households and 10,190 children under the age of seventeen within a one mile radius of the plant. And BWAY—recently absorbed by Mauser Packaging Solutions—has often caught the eyes of the EPA.
In September 2012, the EPA notified BWAY Corporation of violations in two major categories. First, it failed to comply with the Natural Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP). BWAY’s thermal oxidizer, used to decompose hazardous chemicals and gases, was not operating at the appropriate temperature.
Second, the corporation failed to follow requirements of the Clean Air Act. According to the EPA, from 2010-2012, BWAY exceeded limits for volatile organic compounds—harmful toxins in the air—twelve different times. During these periods, the company also failed to monitor their emissions as continually as is required. More recently, the EPA and state have reported monitoring compliance deviations after reviews at the facility in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019.
BWAY has also failed to comply with worker health and safety procedures as reported by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The company received ten complaints or referrals from 2015 to 2018. Nine were listed as involving an amputation. One case in particular had several repeat violations, specifically referencing an employee who caught a finger in the conveyor belt system.
In 2010, the company applied for renewal of its Clean Air Act permit, which companies must do every five years. While waiting for the permit to be finalized, the company operates under the expired one. LVEJO requested a hearing when the proposed permit draft became public in 2016. According to LVEJO’s Meza, this is the only time the community had a chance for public comment or complaint. The hearing wasn’t set until November of 2019 and there has since been no response on the results.
The night of the hearing was cold and attendance was small. Residents could testify during the hearing or submit written comments to the Illinois EPA (IEPA) until the end of the month. Participants at the hearing clearly felt an overwhelming sense of frustration, along with some confusion. Many members echoed each other with the same questions. What would the new permit do? And more importantly, what had they all been breathing in for so long?
“I mean, to be honest, the kids often don’t know what you’re talking about smell-wise because they’re really used to it,” Sue Nelson, who coaches the girls’ cross country team and teaches science at the high school, said. “It takes really pointing it out. Even my runners, I’ll say, ‘Do you smell it? That’s it, that’s the smell.’”
Nelson would usually get the girls to run away from the school, in the opposite direction from BWAY, to get away from the fumes. She knew something was not right. “A lot of girls maybe five or six years back would talk about how it would burn their chest and give them headaches,” Nelson continued. “I mean, any of those things could be that you’re getting in shape as a runner, but most of those were pretty experienced kids that I had running.”
In the summer of 2017, Nelson participated in an University of Illinois at Chicago program called the Bioengineering Experience for Science Teachers (BEST). She took the initiative to focus on the Little Village community. With scant information about the smell coming from BWAY, Nelson wanted to study the air quality and pollution that she had been dealing with for the past fourteen years. She was determined to discover what could be causing the odor.
Nelson rented an air monitor, funded through the UIC program, to analyze the area around the high school for a week. It was hard to decipher exactly what her results meant, but according to the U.S. EPA Toxic Release Inventory, certain chemicals released by BWAY such as glycol ethers, toluene, and ethylbenzene could cause neurological or even carcinogenic issues. The amount of chemical waste released into the air by the corporation in 2018 came to 52,579 pounds.
According to Meza, there is a lack of scientific research about what levels of these toxins are damaging and what long-term effect they could have on the community. “I tend to feel very angry that kids are exposed to stuff here. I tend to feel angry that I’ve been exposed to a lot of stuff here,” Nelson said. “I’ve gone through three pregnancies here.”
The community hopes the IEPA’s final permit for BWAY will include an odor management plan along with other various provisions such as permanent total enclosure around the four coating lines at the factory, a monitoring system that will be reported on quarterly, and a five-year testing plan for implementing regenerative thermal oxidizers (RTO), which are meant to eliminate volatile and hazardous air pollutants. At the hearing, the IEPA board could not promise decline in odors or explain exactly what is causing the odors.
There has been no official comment from BWAY corporation concerning the new permit or the high school, and multiple attempts to contact Mauser have been ignored. But Yolanda González, a Mauser HR employee, spoke towards the end of the IEPA hearing. She said that if the hearing had happened even three years ago, none of them would have been there on behalf of BWAY.
“There’s been a lot of changes in the past four years I’ve been there,” González told the IEPA panel. “I wanted to make it clear that we’re not against [the community]. We’re trying to work with them.”
She emphasized that none of the employees there that night were forced to come. They all came voluntarily because they believed in their company. “We would not be here if this was not the way we felt,” González reiterated before taking her seat.
Yet just this past year, on September 14, a large black plume of smoke was emitted from the factory during a sophomore soccer game. There was no immediate explanation provided to the community by BWAY.
The school contacted LVEJO and the organization sent a photo from the incident to the IEPA, which then carried out an investigation. The exact cause of this event has not been determined, but according to the incident report from the maintenance contractor, “black lava rock like buildup” was found at the bottom of the duct close to the fan. This buildup could have been from the ceramic media that is used to heat up the contaminants.
The inspector was not sure when or if the stack, fan, or duct had ever been cleaned, but determined it was a good idea to inspect further. The EPA issued a violation notice to BWAY on October 28, specifically calling attention to the company’s violation of the visible emission standard.
Chicago environmental law attorney Keith Harley raised concerns about the fugitive emissions from the plant during the hearing, specifically referencing this incident. He stated BWAY should be required to report all these VOC releases to the IEPA. “BWAY should be required to develop a release plan that immediately responds to fugitive VOC releases when they are detected,” Harley said during the hearing. “Including notifying the school administration so that it can adjust outdoor activities…”
Vanessa Mora is a senior at Loyola University Chicago studying environmental policy. She attended Little Village Lawndale High School and ran cross country on Nelson’s team, where she experienced burning in her chest, headaches, and nosebleeds. She attended the public hearing, and addressed the IEPA panel.
“I just feel like the state and the federal government has let us down because there’s a lot of loopholes that these companies can go through,” Mora said, thinking back to her time at school. “It wasn’t really a focus that I know of.”
The school administration and students already have a lot on their plate. When she was there, the school was focused on not losing funding. Last year, CPS schools went through the longest strike in decades after suffering cuts in funding, overcrowding, and unmet staffing demands. It ended after eleven days. And at the time of the November hearing, a shooting in the neighborhood the previous month had put the school and students on high alert.
Back at the high school, the members of the EJ Club emphasized that they wouldn’t leave their high school even if they were given the chance.
“I love my school,” Meraz said.
“I do,” the others chorused.
Nelson is hoping to get a new air monitor, one that can really read what’s going on outside. They all agreed it was a place worth fighting for.
Elena Bruess is a writer and multimedia journalist who has written for The Outline, Chicago Magazine, The Takeout, and other publications. You can find her at @ellevarela.