South Side communities have pushed major environmental justice campaigns to the forefront in recent years with important gains. South Side Weekly caught up with three environmental activists who have used their unique skills and networks to fight against powerful industrial facilities and hold city officials accountable. They reflected on the last couple of years, the progression of their organizing, and what they want to see next.
The Campaign to Stop General Iron is a grassroots fight aimed to prevent the industrial facility General Iron from moving to the Southeast Side, a working-class, Black and Latinx community historically burdened with heavy industry. It began when previous mayors Lori Lightfoot and Rahm Emmanuel gave General Iron’s parent company, Reserve Management Group, the green light to move to the Southeast Side when it was operating in Lincoln Park, a majority white and rich North Side neighborhood near the $6 billion Lincoln Yards megadevelopment.
Those efforts were blocked through city-wide protests and a 2021 hunger strike by community members to draw attention to decades of environmental racism. According to the City’s latest Air Quality and Health Report, the South and West sides have some of the worst air quality in the region—in particular, areas like the Southeast Side, which are “bisected by major highways with high concentrations of industry,” the report found.
The construction of MAT Asphalt in McKinley Park, another majority Latinx neighborhood with a large immigrant community, spawned a separate campaign in 2018. An asphalt mixing factory, MAT Asphalt sits across the street from a public park near schools and housing. According to activists, the dust and fumes produced each day have had a harmful effect on lung health and those with asthma.
Its dubious construction underscored the importance of learning how zoning practices work in the city, and created awareness about the need for community input in development projects and transparency from alderpersons. Still, residents are concerned that despite numerous complaints and fines for air pollution, the City has continued to award MAT Asphalt with millions of dollars in contracts. Activists continue to push for its closure.
These events took place on the South Side of the city—in poor and working-class communities of color. Each campaign demonstrated cross-community solidarity and saw sacrifices made in the face of indifference from the City. And they’re not over yet.
Trinity Colón had just become a junior at George Washington High School in East Side when the Campaign to Stop General Iron exploded in growth. I met her in 2020, when she and her classmates led a rally and march to then-alderwoman Susan Sadlowski Garza’s house to demand a response after General Iron received a permit to build near homes and George Washington High School. This was at the start of the pandemic; Colón had just begun online classes at home.
Next month, Colón will turn twenty. She reflected on her teenage years, which largely revolved around stopping the facility from harming her community. “I missed out on a lot because I was planning protests. I was also healing from a lot of trauma that actually stemmed from the movement.”
Colón said she missed a lot of important milestones and fun community gatherings. Instead, she was at various rallies—often the one holding a megaphone—and leading peers and community members in protests at City Hall and throughout the city. She was interviewed by various local, national and international publications, and in 2020, she co-wrote an article in Teen Vogue to tell teens like herself about the Campaign to Stop General Iron.
Colón said she was also often ostracized, especially by adults who supported General Iron’s move to East Side. Some even worked at the school she attended. She said after students went back to in-person classes, she noticed “weird stares” from some of the staff and faculty. Some criticism came after public events. At times, Colón was verbally attacked, in-person and on social media, for superficial reasons: wearing crop tops, or being petite, or cursing at public events. She remembers one comment in particular, along the lines of: “How can we even listen to what she’s saying when she’s dressed like this?” What kept her going was feeling a sense of pride in her community and the support she received from her neighbors and mentors.
Later in 2020, three Southeast Side environmental organizations filed a complaint with the federal government, stating that moving General Iron to the Southeast was a continuation of decades of environmental racism. The organizations alleged racist city zoning and planning policies had kept heavy industry in communities of color on the South Side. The complaint led to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and in 2022, it was concluded that City officials had “discriminated on the basis of race and national origin” by concentrating polluting factories in communities of color.
As a result, the City must cooperate with community organizations and come up with an environmental justice plan to address and remedy the impacts of pollution and discriminatory zoning through a cumulative impact assessment by September 1. The City will lose hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding if it doesn’t come up with a plan to address environmental justice problems this fall. The action plan is to be based on data assessments, policy recommendations from environmental justice organizations and public opinion collected through community engagement events, which began this summer. The end goal is to draft a cumulative impact ordinance. At press time, CDPH did not respond to a request for updates about the September 1 environmental justice plans.
In February 2022, the City denied Reserve Management Group (RMG)—General Iron’s parent company—a permit to operate on the Southeast Side. But this June, a judge reversed that decision. In June, Mayor Brandon Johnson stated that the city will appeal.
Colón is optimistic about the future of the fight, especially given the solidarity between environmental justice organizations on various campaigns. “All my experiences in life are tied to this place geographically, demographically and culturally,” said Colón.
Southeast Side resident Gina Ramirez, Midwest outreach manager at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and co-chair of the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, was instrumental in the federal complaint.
Ramirez remembers that as a child, when she and her family would drive past the industrial facilities in her neighborhood, her dad would tell her to roll up the window so she didn’t inhale the fumes. She also watched her mother, who grew up near the U.S. Steel plant, struggle with asthma.
But she first learned the concept of “environmental racism” while studying at DePaul University in Lincoln Park. “When I first started college, I noticed the tale of two cities—how different Lincoln Park was compared to my neighborhood. How different the air quality was—[and] the quality of life and vitality and investment,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez said she became involved in environmental justice work when petroleum coke “petcoke” was being stored by KCBX Terminals at a metals storage facility, S.H. Bell in East Side. She was also pregnant during that time. “I knew…I didn’t want my son growing up, you know, breathing this in,” she said. Petcoke causes a variety of health problems, including asthma and other respiratory and pulmonary issues which can lead to premature death. Ramirez and other Southeast Side environmentalists fought for the banning of the product in 2015.
Ramirez then joined the Campaign to Stop General Iron. “The campaign started out really small—it was in the middle of a pandemic, there wasn’t much we could do to organize. So we started out with lawn signs,” she said. Social media also gave the campaign leverage. “We really used the power of social media to compel younger generations to learn more about what environmental racism is, and that this was something that is indeed happening in their backyard.”
Ramirez is now part of several environmental campaigns, including the cumulative impact assessment with the Chicago Environmental Justice Network (CEJN) to advance advocacy around public health issues. She said a lot more of her work will focus on politics and lobbying under the Natural Resources Defense Council.
For instance, something she would like to see next: a state bill that repairs the broken permitting system that exists in Illinois. “Right now, if you’re in an industry and you want to set up shop in a manufacturing district, you’re just granted a permit. They don’t have to look at past violations that an industry has. They don’t have to take community input into consideration. That needs to be overhauled,” said Ramirez.
Like Colón, Ramirez also alluded to having missed out on important things. She would much rather be teaching her child how to ride a bike than “attending community meetings about another poisonous neurotoxin in the air.” But she continues to be inspired by the people in her community who have stood up against what was wrong. “Regular, everyday community members can band together and create power from the ground up, [can] hold a mirror up to the City [and say] that this is wrong, what you’re doing is wrong, what you’ve done for generations upon generations is wrong. This is how you do it right.”
Anthony Moser is a software developer, resident of Brighton Park, and board president of Neighbors for Environmental Justice (N4EJ). He helped to found the environmental justice organization in Spring 2018, from the attic of his home, in response to MAT Asphalt’s opening in McKinley Park.
Moser takes it upon himself to find and clean up city government data that is messy and difficult for people to find and makes it accessible. His search for complaints and tickets relating to MAT Asphalt led him and his organization to write and publish a report, Ineffective by Choice, which looks at how the City has regulated environmental violations in Chicago across the last two decades.
In his investigation, Moser found problems not just with newer facilities like MAT Asphalt, but also with existing ones, such as Pullman Innovations, Sims Metal Recycling, and T&B Limited (owned by the Tadin family, which also owns MAT Asphalt). He found that the City consistently drops their environmental violations charges, does not effectively apply environmental laws, settles small fines and caps the number of citations issued to these companies at three, preventing escalating fines.
When Moser asked CDPH about why they limit citations, CDPH responded that it is part of a “legal strategy” meaning “as long as previous violations remain unresolved and negotiations continue, no further tickets are issued,” according to the report. But according to Moser, this is an incentive for facilities.
This summer, Johnson’s transition team recommended, along with a Green New Deal, the establishment of the Department of Environment (DOE) which was disbanded in 2012 under Rahm Emmanuel.
But Moser wants the public to see that the issue of capping tickets has been going on since before the department was dismantled. “Obviously, [the Chicago Department of Public Health] took over this role and did much worse at it. But those practices [of not issuing more tickets] already existed.”
Moser thinks there must be more than just reinstating the DOE and the current Cumulative Impact Assessment that the City and community groups are working on. He thinks current facilities need to be looked at, too. “It’s going to take substantial thought, especially when it comes to what authority is granted to the Department of Environment and how that department will work with other City departments for things to happen in a meaningful way.”
A map created by Moser that looks at environmental violations, also from the last two decades, shows where the Chicago Department of Public Health and the DOE have spent the majority of their time and energy. Since 2002, the departments have issued the most tickets for small infractions such as cleanliness during construction, or for expired certificates of operation. Moser said the city could instead focus on making sure people aren’t harmed from the pollution that these companies produce. “You can think of it as almost like busywork,” Moser said of this finding. “It suggests that there’s a focus on quick-hit easy things, small-scale stuff.”
Moser said his work in accessing and cleaning up data is about holding the City accountable and making it easier for people to understand what’s going on. “You have to put [data] into a context that makes it meaningful. Just dumping different categories of spreadsheets on the internet isn’t, for most people, going to help them make sense of how things work. So a lot of times I’m just trying to bring together different pieces to make it easier to see how they connect.”
As far as the City’s Cumulative Impact Assessment, Moser said he is looking forward to the cumulative impact assessment’s environmental justice plan. “The challenge before us now is to act,” he said. “We have to address those findings, make sure that the city follows through on changing its policies and practices, and end the sacrifice zones where pollution has been concentrated.” Moser will be putting out a similar report on environmental regulations on a yearly basis so that the public can continue to monitor these issues and hold the city accountable.
Ramirez is inspired by seeing younger generations like Colón carrying the torch. “They’re doing the work, and I love to see it. And whatever I can do to take a step back and let others lead to create a community of care that they want for their life and for their future children, I’m here to help along the way.”
As for Colón, she is now a student at Northwestern University studying social policy, environmental policy, culture and Spanish. But she continues to be involved with local environmental organizations on the Southeast Side. While she said there is still more work to do, she is optimistic about the progress made. “I think one of the most important things I learned is that my story has power,” she said. “And I don’t think I realized that before. I didn’t realize how powerful my existence is and how powerful it was for me to stand outside chanting, writing speeches, going on pressers, going on the news, and really calling it like it is.”
Alma Campos is a senior editor for the Weekly.