While Yesenia Chavez was growing up on Chicago’s Southeast Side, it seemed like everyone had asthma. Her mother and sister had the condition, as did many of her classmates. Sometimes she felt left out because she did not have an inhaler. Now as an adult living here, she may have dodged asthma—but this working-class, predominantly Latino area is home to more than 50 current and former industrial sites. And some of them have emitted the kind of air pollution that research has linked to environment-related health conditions such as asthma and others that are prevalent in Chavez’s community.
Last month she joined other activists in a 28-day hunger strike to protest an Ohio- and Chicago-based company’s plan to move a metal-scrapping facility from an affluent white neighborhood on the city’s North Side (where it recently closed) and into the Southeast Side. Hundreds more supporters took part in 24-hour solidarity strikes before the month-long one ended on March 4. The scrapping process, which prepares scrap metal for recycling, can spew air pollution—including fine particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or smaller, known as PM2.5, and coarser ones with a diameter of 10 microns or smaller, known as PM10. The hunger strikers, along with several community organizations, say they are tired of polluting industries using their home as a dumping ground.
Reserve Management Group (RMG) is the parent company of the former North Side facility and four existing recycling operations on the Southeast Side. Randall Samborn, a spokesperson for RMG, says the future facility would be outfitted with the latest air-pollution controls.
The tension over inequality and the siting of polluting industries has unfolded in communities nationwide, such as California’s San Joaquin Valley and areas in Louisiana and New Jersey. And the conflict has come to a head just as President Joe Biden has signed into law a $1.9-trillion COVID-19 relief stimulus package—which includes $100 million earmarked for grants and programs to help minority and low-income communities address the disproportionate burden of air pollution and other environmental health risks.
It is unclear if Southeast Side residents will succeed in permanently blocking yet another metal-scrapping facility from operating in their community. But earlier this month the city government delayed a permit for the new Southeast Side plant and took measures that could require metal recyclers to submit stronger environmental impact assessments and to host a community meeting.
Particulate pollution can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause disease. Decades of research has linked air pollution to cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses and premature death. Air pollution can even contribute to a higher risk for contracting and dying of infectious diseases such as SARS—and the illness behind our current pandemic—several studies now suggest. Pollution from multiple sources can combine with other social disparities, including limited access to stores that sell healthy food, to place heavier health burdens on already vulnerable populations.
In Chicago, Black and Latino children have far higher rates of asthma than white children (Black children’s rates are far higher). And Black and Latino people, along with those living in poor communities, are disproportionately exposed to fine particulate matter on average, compared with white people and residents of more affluent communities, according to 2019 findings by biosystems engineer Jason Hill of the University of Minnesota and his colleagues.
Chicago has a history of housing discrimination and remains racially segregated, and the city’s health disparities are glaring. “You have this compounded issue of historic racism in redlining…, but the problem is compounded by economic disadvantage that nonwhite populations have borne, too,” Hill says. Between 2016 and 2018 adult asthma rates on the Southeast Side were between 15 and 20 percent, compared with 9 percent citywide in 2018, according to the Chicago Health Atlas. Last year an Air Quality and Health Report released by the city found the Southeast Side community was one of its most vulnerable to the health effects of air pollution.
In 2018 Yukyan Lam, a public health scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, mapped the cumulative health impacts of environmental pollution in Chicago, including particulate air pollution from diesel trucks and other sources. The results correlated with redlining maps (which were used in the city and nationwide to enforce racial discrimination in home loans in the 1930s) and with recent disparities in COVID-19 deaths and vaccine access.
Grace Tee Lewis, a health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, says municipalities should consider such mapping data when weighing whether to permit an industrial facility to operate in a community. “You can look at the particular pollutants that are being emitted by certain types of facilities you’ve mapped out—getting back to that cumulative burden to fence-line communities,” Tee Lewis says. “I think those types of factors need to be considered in risk assessments in general and definitely need to be considered in placements of industrial facilities.”
When the metal-scrapping facility was operating in a neighborhood in Chicago’s North Side, it contributed to air pollution by emitting particulate pollution, fuel exhaust from truck traffic and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), says Serap Erdal, a University of Illinois at Chicago environmental and occupational health scientist, who studied emissions in that neighborhood’s air in 2016.
A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigation determined that particulate and hazardous air pollutant emissions from the now closed North Side operation were below acceptable limits—but that VOC emissions exceeded them. Under a subsequent federal consent-decree agreement, the facility said it would implement better air-pollution controls.
The Southeast Side facility plan set off protests when it was announced in in July 2018. In late January 2020 the EPA confirmed it was investigating the move for civil rights violations, but a month later it tabled the inquiry. In a statement to Scientific American, an EPA spokesperson said the Biden-Harris administration is committed to environmental justice and “has renewed our commitment to consider and address environmental justice challenges through consultation and engagement with overburdened communities.” On February 10, after a week of the hunger strike, Susan Sadlowski Garza, a city council member who represents Southeast Side residents, asked Chicago to delay a permit for the new plant. Later that month Democratic senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, both of Illinois, along with two of the state’s congressional representatives, called on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate air pollution around two of RMG’s existing Southeast Side facilities.
Last week the city delayed RMG’s permit for the new Southeast Side facility, asking the company for more information about the potential impact of all of its operations in the area. Earlier on the same day, a city zoning committee took the action to require metal recyclers and other industries to submit traffic and air-quality impact assessments and to host a community meeting to discuss their plans. “It’s a step in the right direction,” Sadlowski Garza said at the zoning committee’s meeting. But Byron Sigcho-Lopez, a city council member who joined the hunger strikers, voted against the measure and said that the city must do more to include community members in the site-approval process for potentially polluting industries.
On Wednesday the full city council passed the zoning measure over objections from some progressive council members, who said it did not go far enough to rein in polluters and noted that no environmental justice groups supported it.*
Chavez sees some progress for the health of her community—even if Chicago ultimately allows the new metal-scrapping plant. “The city is saying, ‘All their equipment is up to standard; this is what’s acceptable if you’re going to be polluting a neighborhood,’” she says. “We have [many] other companies in our neighborhood that are not up to standard. Let’s get them up to standard so we can reduce emissions. The data is there. The hunger is there, and the patience and the need for change is definitely there, too.”
*Editor’s Note (3/24/21): This sentence was added after posting to update the status of the zoning measure.