Eight community groups in Chicago have banded together to keep a coal to gas processing plant from building in their neighborhood. Southeastern Chicago already has air pollution levels over legal limits and bears some of the highest rates of cancer and lung disease in the country.
The newly forged community group, Environmental Justice Alliance of Greater Southeast Chicago, is led by Cheryl Johnson, daughter of one of the mothers of the environmental justice movement, Hazel Johnson. Hazel Johnson passed away last year, you can listen to Planet Harmony's tribute here, and read about the neighborhood she fought for below.
Within a month this summer, Gov. Pat Quinn beefed up laws intended to protect poor and minority communities from toxic pollution and cleared the way for a coal-to-gas plant in a low-income Chicago neighborhood where people already breathe some of the nation's dirtiest air.
The apparent contradiction is mobilizing community activists on the city's Southeast Side to fight what they see as a new wave of highly polluting industries concentrated in areas surrounded by steel mills, abandoned factories, landfills and sewage treatment plants.
Eight organizations announced Wednesday that they will work as one group, dubbed the Environmental Justice Alliance of Greater Southeast Chicago, to help ensure that new and existing companies comply with air- and water-pollution limits. The activists vowed to hold public officials and environmental regulators accountable for their promises to safeguard children, the elderly and others who are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals and heavy metals.
"We are tired of the environmental assault on our community," said Cheryl Johnson, a lifelong resident of the Altgeld Gardens public housing development, where President Barack Obama once worked as a community organizer. "We want jobs and industry that don't pollute our neighborhoods and make our children sick."
During the 1980s, Johnson's late mother, Hazel, helped start an "environmental justice" movement that used industry data and census figures to highlight how poor African-American and Latino neighborhoods throughout the nation are disproportionately affected by air and water pollution. More recent data show that although pollution generally has declined, low-income and minority areas continue to be hit hardest.
A 2008 Tribune investigation revealed that people in Chicago and nearby suburbs face some of the nation's highest risks for cancer, lung disease and other ailments linked to industrial pollution. Nearly two dozen of the region's top polluters are within eight miles of Altgeld Gardens and other neighborhoods ringing Lake Calumet in the city's southeast corner.
Activists led by Johnson's People for Community Recovery, the Southeast Environmental Task Force and the Sierra Club are angry that Quinn signed legislation in July paving the way for a new plant that plans to turn coal and oil refinery waste into natural gas.
The site is two blocks from Washington High School, 3535 E. 114th St., where a monitor shows the neighborhood's air already has the state's highest levels of toxic chromium and cadmium, as well as sulfates, which can trigger asthma attacks. It also has some of the state's highest levels of lung-damaging soot and brain-damaging lead.
Another company is seeking permits to build a kiln nearby that would burn refinery waste and scrap tires. A third wants to take waste from the proposed coal-to-gas plant and siphon off caustic sulfuric acid for use by other industries.
"The time has come for us to rise up, work together and come up with an alternative vision of the kind of community we want to live in," said the Rev. Zaki L. Zaki of the East Side United Methodist Church. "If we don't stand up, our communities will be overrun by polluters whose sole mission is to make money."
Developers of the coal-to-gas plant say it will turn dirty coal into cleaner natural gas, create 1,000 construction jobs and add 200 permanent jobs in an area decimated by plant closings. But it could be sidetracked for reasons other than the extra pollution it would create.
The holding company for Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas announced last week that it won't buy the plant's synthetic gas, saying customers would be forced to subsidize it through heating bills that could jump by 9 percent a year. The move could make it more difficult for New York-based Leucadia National Corp. to obtain financing for the project.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency also opposes a bid by the site's current owner to transfer pollution credits that would enable the coal-to-gas plant to operate in an area where overall air pollution already violates federal and state standards. EPA officials say a coke oven that once operated on the site has been shuttered too long for the credits to remain valid.
In a statement Wednesday, Quinn's office said the plant will be required to meet "strict environmental standards" and "(the governor's) principles of requiring all energy projects to protect consumers, create jobs and safeguard our environment."
Less than a month after Quinn signed the Leucadia bill, he approved legislation creating an environmental justice commission intended to address concerns about high asthma and cancer rates in poor neighborhoods. "Race, income or nationality should not determine the quality of the air one breathes or the water one drinks," he said at the time.
The governor's comments echoed statements from the Obama administration, which has repeatedly pledged to make environmental justice a more routine part of the federal government's decision-making. But the lure of jobs and lobbying from the Chicago coal-to-gas plant's backers could make the project one of many exceptions.
Tribune reporter Julie Wernau contributed.