by Jamey Dunn
On the banks of the Calumet, in the neighborhood of 103rd Street, are large swamps capable of being developed into fine parks; the country is gently undulating with plenty of woodland, and the view across Calumet Lake is fine.
— Plan of Chicago, 1909
by Daniel Burnham
and Edward Bennett
The southeast side of Chicago has a long history of manufacturing, which has left behind a legacy of pollution. Grassroots efforts in the community have led to environmental improvements. But a struggle continues over whether future development for the economically depressed area will focus on its ecological assets or a return to industry.
It was the natural resources of the area that drew development and industry. “The story of Chicago’s southeast side is the story of steel,” wrote Rod Sellers, a local historian, in a 2006 paper on the industrial history of the area. “At one point, the region was one of the largest steel producing regions in the world. Heavy industry, especially steel mills, came to the area after the Civil War, drawn by natural features compatible with their business. There was cheap land and plenty of it — land that would be used for factories, bulk storage and disposal. Fresh water was present, water for cooling necessary in the manufacturing process, and water for transportation.”
The Calumet River was recognized as a shipping asset as early as the 1800s. A harbor was established, the river was widened and deepened and a canal was built. Early industry, such as factories and steel mills, grew up around the river. City planners Burnham and Bennett also recognized the area’s value as a hub for commercial transport. “The Calumet is an ample stream, and on every hand the silhouettes of steel industries give strong evidence of the coming importance of this channel as a harbor. Every effort, therefore, should be made to concentrate the vehicle traffic crossing this river at well-chosen points where great bridges might be constructed, in order to create as little friction as possible between the vessel and land traffic,” they wrote in their 1909 plan for the city.
Railways began to crisscross the area in the mid- 1800s, further solidifying its status as an industrial hub. Railway development continued, and the Calumet area is now the largest center in North America for intermodal freight shipping, according to the city of Chicago’s 1991 Calumet Area Land Use Plan.
In the heyday of American steel, the plants employed an estimated 200,000 people. “That was the reason people came to this area,” Sellers, a retired teacher who taught high school history on the southeast side for more than 30 years, told the Washington Post in 2004. “My grandfather worked in the mills for 50 years. When we were kids and we’d get crabby, my mom would pile us in the car to go look at the slag [molten waste from steel production] being dumped. It was like a volcano erupting. When my dad’s war buddy came to town, what did he show him? He’d drive him around all the mills. That was life here.”
The industrial boom lasted until the late 1900s. A downturn began in the 1970s that culminated with the closing of the largest steel mills. The first, Wisconsin Steel, was in 1980; the last holdout, the Acme Steel Coke Plant, closed in 2001. From 1992 to 1998, while most of Chicago and the rest of the country were experiencing gains in employment, the southeast side lost a net 2,000 jobs.
In his account of the industrial development of the area that would eventually become the southeast side of Chicago, Sellers noted another important feature. “The region was far enough from Chicago to minimize the negative features of heavy industry on the city and yet close enough to take advantage of the markets of the Chicago metropolitan region.”
It is this distance and relative isolation from other parts of the city — coupled with the fact that the area is economically depressed and has large populations of minorities — that some residents say played a role in the southeast side becoming a place for the rest of Chicago to put its trash.
According to the city’s 2001 land-use plan, landfills cover about 825 acres on the southeast side. “The southeast side for a very long time was an area that suffered a lot of pollution, and it became the dumping ground for everyone else’s garbage,” says Sellers.
These conditions led to the birth of a movement now referred to as environmental justice.
The environmental justice movement seeks to reveal through data that minorities and those in low-income areas bear the brunt of the nation’s pollution.
And the data exists. For example, a 2005 analysis of federal documents by the Associated Press found that African-Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in areas where industrial pollution presents the greatest health dangers. The study ranked the southeast side as one of the most environmentally hazardous areas in the country. Illinois was among 18 states where black residents were at least twice as likely as whites to live in areas where air pollution presents the greatest risk of health, and it was among 12 states where Hispanic residents were twice as likely as white residents to live in such areas.
Those advocating for environmental justice work to help these groups clean up their neighborhoods and be a part of future decisions that would affect the health of their local environments and their families.
Hazel Johnson, who is known as the mother of the environmental justice movement, lived in Altgeld Gardens, a housing development built on the southeast side of Chicago in 1945 for African-American veterans returning from World War II. In the 2010 census, the population for the tract containing Altgeld Gardens was 95 percent African-American.
The development is surrounded by sources of contamination and foul smells: a wastewater treatment plant, the now polluted Calumet River, abandoned industrial sites and staggering piles of trash stacked in landfills. Johnson dubbed the area around Altgeld Gardens the “toxic doughnut.”
“For a century, we let people dump whatever they wanted on the southeast side. Solid waste, toxic waste — we don’t even know what’s buried in some of those places,” says Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club.
After her husband and others in the community, including several children, died of cancer, Johnson began working in the 1970s to document sickness in the area believed to be caused by the industrial pollution. She worked to educate herself and those around her about health and environmental issues. “For so long, environmental activism has been primarily a white, middle-class issue, far removed from the daily reality of inner-city life,” Johnson told the Chicago Tribune in 1995. “These people are so engrossed in the struggle for survival that they have nothing left to give. Their mindset is, ‘I’ve got to put food on the table today,’ rather than, ‘I’d better protect the environment for my children’s tomorrow.’ It usually takes a personal, immediate and urgent concern, such as a proposed waste incinerator or a family member’s illness or death, to motivate low-income and minority populations to become involved.
“It’s all very well to embrace saving the rain forests and conserving endangered animal species, but such global initiatives don’t even begin to impact communities inhabited by people of color,” she said.
Johnson founded an organization called People for Community Recovery and won several environmental victories in the area, including getting local water tested for pollutants and blocking local landfill expansion. Her lobbying, along with the work of others, helped push then-President Bill Clinton to sign an environmental justice executive order meant to hold the federal government accountable for pollution that disproportionately affects some urban communities.
Johnson died last year, but her daughter Cheryl Johnson has continued her work. Cheryl and other advocates in the community say that the southeast side is facing new environmental threats.
In 1984, the Chicago City Council enacted a moratorium on creating new landfills or expanding existing landfills within the city. However, Land and Lakes Co. recently won a lawsuit to annex 86 acres of southern Chicago into Dolton, a south suburb. That piece of land is part of a landfill that closed in 1995. Land and Lakes wants to pull it into Dolton, where Chicago’s ban would not apply, and dump on the site to prevent its active landfill in Dolton, River Bend, from reaching capacity. The River Bend landfill is projected to reach capacity by 2013, according to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. It is Cook County’s only active landfill and it receives less than 1 percent of Chicago’s trash. The rest goes to landfills near Rockford and Pontiac or is shipped to Indiana.
Opponents to the expansion say the plan is an end-run around the city’s landfill ban. “Hispanic and black communities around the country have always been targeted for this type of operation, and we said enough is enough. …We don’t want it anymore,” says Cheryl Johnson, who lives in Altgeld Gardens.
In the closing days of the spring legislative session, the General Assembly approved House Bill 3881, which would bar the Illinois EPA from issuing permits for new landfills or landfill expansions in Cook County.
But Mary Margaret Cowhey, Land of Lakes’ chief executive officer, complained that the proposal, which opponents argued would pre-empt local control, was being rushed through the legislature at a time when it could be overshadowed by proposals to reform Medicaid and the state’s pension systems. “There is absolutely no reason for this bill to be pushed this late in session, when all eyes are turned to pension reform. No applications are pending for this site. Nothing can be permitted before the fall [legislative] session. To place a blanket elimination on EPA permits in Cook County kills deserving projects. This bill is overkill based on fear,” Cowhey told a House committee before the bill passed.
The ban will mean lost jobs and lower tax revenues for Dolton. “Simply put, our business will close when we soon reach capacity. A vote to prohibit IEPA permits in Cook County will shutter our family business and put 80 families out of work,” Cowhey said.
Hopes of bringing jobs to struggling neighborhoods on the southeast side have some lawmakers who backed HB 3881 also supporting a plan to build a plant that would turn coal into natural gas on the former site of a steel mill in the area.
“This bill does generate jobs for the state of Illinois — 1,100 to 1,200 jobs during the construction phase. It would have from 200 to 300 permanent jobs. We’re utilizing Illinois coal. We’re utilizing a resource that we have plenty of,” Chicago Democratic Sen. Donne Trotter said last year during floor debate of the plan to build the plant that will be owned by the Leucadia National Corp. Under the law, construction on the plant must begin in 2015. As of press time, the Illinois Commerce Commission had yet to act on contracts needed to move the project forward. Local utilities Ameren and Nicor, which will be required to buy gas from the plant, say they are being asked to cover too much of the construction and operation costs. The ICC intends to revisit the issue soon. However, in the last days of the session, legislators approved a bill that could force the commission to approve the plan.
According to the plant’s design, most of the emissions from the process would be trapped underground, but environmental community groups are worried about other impacts, such as coal dust.
“No matter how much technology you use, there is still pollution,” says Peggy Salazar, executive director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force. “People don’t understand what coal dust means for a community.”
Salazar says many in the area are proud of the southeast side’s industrial history. She also thinks the community has earned a fresh start. “The steel that was made here won wars. The steel that was made here built downtown Chicago,” she says. “[The mills] offered jobs. People made a living, and most of the time, a decent living.” She says the southeast side should preserve the history of its industrial past but look to developing its natural resources and potential as a recreation destination for the future of its economic growth.
An estimated 200 species of birds visit the region each year. Bald eagles have recently been sighted in the area, and fish are plentiful in the Grand Calumet River — a notable change in a river that in the 1980s had stretches that were so polluted that no fish could be found. Millions in public funds have been invested to clean up industrial sites and restore the Calumet water systems. Most recently, Gov. Pat Quinn announced $17.9 million in state funds to kick off implementation of the Millennium Reserve plan. The plan is a collaboration between state, federal and local entities and contains many of the proposals from the city’s Calumet Area Land Use Plan. Advocates of the Millennium Reserve proposal hope it will one day result in up to 140,000 acres of open space.
Salazar and others point to the progress that has been made in the area and say that any development, either ecological or industrial, should be done with an eye for preserving and building off what has already started. “Our leaders tend to just jump on the easiest solution,” she says. “We’re trying to move away from that.”
Illinois Issues, July/August 2012