The massive shredders and processors that tear apart cars and refrigerators and scrap metal at Clybourn and Webster seem out of place in today’s rapidly gentrifying North Branch, but only a few years ago the entire region – known as an industrial corridor – was filled with factories, steel mills, tanneries and similar businesses.
There’s another part of Chicago that’s also left with massive ghosts of an industrial past, but there aren’t any fancy developers moving in with office towers and river-edge parks. It’s the area of South Chicago where so much of Chicago’s steel legacy was forged, and unfortunately for the people still living there a lot of the toxic residue still remains.
That’s where we begin today’s discussion with Michael Hawthorne, investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who writes mostly about environmental issues.
Manganese has been in the news this week as the City passed new zoning regulations prohibiting the outdoor storage of the material in City limits. It all began more than year ago when the city got involved with the huge controversy about petroleum coke, a dusty by-product of petroleum refining that was being stored in the tenth ward along the Calumet River. It took a long time, but the residents nearby got the city involved and eventually outlawed the storage of petcoke in outdoor yards. But along the way activists discovered a different company, S.H. Bell, storing manganese, which is a known neuro-toxin, and they wanted monitors put up around the yards.
“And that led to a big back and forth in federal court,” Hawthorne begins, “where S. H. Bell said we don’t want to put our own air monitors up around the facility. The federal judge said if you have nothing to hide basically why don’t you just allow this, ordered the monitors. They’ve been in place now I think for a little more than a year and they found high levels of manganese coming from that facility. So S. H. Bell is in negotiations with the federal government to resolve those issues.”
“There’s been a lot of research done around that facility,” Hawthorne adds, “and they’ve found that exposure to manganese can cause problems like learning and memory that there are detectable problems with kids learning and doing well on standardized tests, and other ways that they measure cognitive abilities in children, the kids who are exposed to this manganese are more likely to have those problems. The question now is are we seeing the same thing in Chicago.”
“The City of Chicago piggy-backed on to what the federal government was doing,” he tells us, “and had their own clamp down on S. H. Bell. And the idea is at the beginning of this year S. H. Bell came back and said we’re going to stop storing manganese outside, so to kind of cut back on it blowing into the neighborhood.”
But the activists want another step. They want assurances that storage and shipping terminals like S.H. Bell can’t start up new facilities in there neighborhood in the future.
“The steel-making jobs are long gone from that neighborhood and what are they left with?” Hawthorne asks. “They are left with a lot of service industries and also kind of these like holdover legacy companies long the Calumet River, and the fear is is the rest of the City gentrifies, for example…that all of that dirty industry is eventually going to move and be concentrated back on the southeast side and that they will be disproportionately affected by pollution once again, which is what they were back in the day. But at least then they had a lot of jobs.”
Michael Hawthorne wrote recently about the Deep Tunnel. Specifically, he was addressing the McCook Reservoir, which only came on line in the last few months. Connected to the massive tunnels that run for miles under Chicago’s major rivers, the system is now capable of temporarily storing just over five billion gallons of sewage and rain water. It’s been the dream of water engineers for over 40 years.
But on February 20, the first big test – it filled to capacity in about 20 hours.
“It’s amazing and it says a lot about essentially what we’ve done to our natural environment,” he asserts.
So much rain fell on that day that when combined with the snow already on the ground, the system filled and went several million gallons beyond its capacity, requiring spills into rivers and the lake.
What’s remarkable about the past 50 years is that Chicago’s population, which hasn’t increased dramatically, has spread out. “And we’ve paved over a lot more of the metropolitan area since then,” Hawthorne explains, “and remember, we built this metropolitan area on a swamp. It’s flat. It doesn’t drain very well. What was the natural Chicago River was this sluggish prairie stream that really didn’t drain much. We live in wetlands, essentially.”
So, despite the construction of this gargantuan underground bucket that might have been adequate for the year it was conceived, by the time it has come into almost-full operation, it’s not adequate for today’s stormwater runoff. (There is, however, a final reservoir in the works, which will double the capacity to just over ten million gallons, but because it’s going to replace a currently-working quarry, it won’t be available for about ten tears.)
So, Hawthorne explains, the big question is – what happens now?
“One of the ways that climate change affects our part of the world is we are either going to have periods of dry weather or really intense wet weather, and that’s kind of what we’ve been getting since 2008,” he says. “In Chicago alone. We’ve had some of the worst storms in recorded history, and in each one of those storms the tunnels itself, the tunnels were quickly overwhelmed. And that means that all of that runoff ends up going out into our source of drinking water in Lake Michigan. And that’s what this entire project was built to prevent from happening.”
Hawthorne says there’s a huge conversation underway about getting the Water Reclamation District busy with lots of smaller projects to disconnect roof downspouts from the sewers, install permeable parking surfaces, roof gardens and rain gardens to soak up and “use” the rain where it falls rather than move it around and mechanically process it. That benefits everyone. But thousands of smaller, custom installations can be complicated to build, and we’re in a race against time if we want to prevent the hundreds of basements that flooded back in February from happening again and again.
On today’s show we also talk about the Foxconn plant soon to debut just north of Illinois in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, and about Cathy Stepp, who has been installed as the Region 5 EPA Director here in Chicago. The two stories are intricately tied together.
“Foxconn is this large Taiwanese-based company. They make flat screens and other electronics. They are a major supplier to Apple, and there was a huge sweepstakes to build a new factory, and Wisconsin won.”
And Cathy Stepp?
“Well, Hawthorne begins, “She was a state senator in Wisconsin on the farther right end of the spectrum. She and her husband owned a small home building company before that. She actually represented the area where the Foxconn plant is going to be located when she was in the state legislature. And Walker then named her, Scott Walker, the Governor of Wisconsin named her as the head of the Department of Natural Resources.”
She quickly distinguished herself in the office.
“She was known for a number of things. Number one, enforcement of environmental laws dropped significantly on her watch. She did other things for example, cut funding for scientific research at the department. And then some kind of small-scale things, but they are big too, especially the far right causes which are scrubbing any reference to climate change from official documents. So she was a polarizing figure. She later was a big advocate for Donald Trump in Wisconsin when he was running for President. She seems to be inline with kind of the same forces that are behind Scott Pruitt, who as Trump’s EPA administrator, was the former Attorney General of Oklahoma and was known for suing the agency that he now leads to try to undo clean air and clean water regulations.”
So how has she distinguished herself as the new EPA Administrator that oversees federal environmental actions across five states?
“Not much actually. She doesn’t come to the phone. To my knowledge she hasn’t made any public appearances outside of the EPA offices,” Hawthorne reports.
“We do know on the Foxconn issue related to air pollution in Wisconsin there’s a big decision coming up that Pruitt and the Trump administration has delayed on a tighter standard for smog, ground level ozone, which can cause all kinds of health problems, mostly lung problems and eventually heart disease. The feds have already missed a deadline to tighten the standard and say where the different areas of the country are and what in EPA speak is called non-attainment. Basically they don’t meet the standard, and that means that sources of pollution in those areas need to do more to reduce pollution.
“One of the areas, one of the dirtiest areas, at least according to monitoring data in Wisconsin is the county where Foxconn wants to locate, and if the standard is tightened to where it should be under the law Foxconn and other factories in that area are going to have to spend a lot more money on pollution control equipment, or they are going to have to find credits from other facilities, credits that are very difficult to find, or they are going to have to scale back production so they’re not polluting as much. So it’s a big issue for not just Foxconn, but for a lot of companies.
“Stepp is in a unique position to potentially affect that. She was on a lot of letters when she was at the State of Wisconsin urging the federal government to back off and stick with the standard that was adopted during the George W. Bush administration. Her immediate predecessor at the Chicago office wrote a letter to Stepp and to Governor Walker last year saying this is what the science says. This is what your own data says. You are going to need to do more. By the way, Chicago is going to have to do more too…Stepp has said that she’s recusing herself from any involvement in that issue, but it should be noted that Scott Pruitt, her boss, one of the cases he filed against the EPA when he was Oklahoma Attorney General was to try to block this smog standard from taking effect. So it’s led to some very interesting legal battles in Washington. Pruitt already backed down. He was going to try to delay the standards from taking effect for at least a year, was sued, and immediately backed down. Now they are talking about setting the final designation of areas that are in non-attainment or in violation with the standard in April. So it will be interesting to see what kind of wrangling goes on from now until then.”
You can listen to this show on SoundCloud here
You can read a full transcript of he conversation here:CN transcript March 29 2018