Trinity Colón grew up believing that everyone had asthma.
Raised in heavy industry on Chicago’s southeast side, Colón had no reason to believe otherwise: her entire family and neighbors shared the same respiratory problems. The accompanying rituals, like keeping the windows closed to ward off the billowing clouds of petroleum coke, seemed normal.
She recalls that once or twice a year her mother would take her to the clinic when her bronchitis worsened, for treatment that her family often could not afford.
Now 17-year-old Colón worries that the health problems she and her community face are about to get worse. In December, a recycling company called Reserve Management Group (RMG) closed a century-old metal junkyard in a prosperous, white part of town after numerous environmental violations, and now the company is about to open a new recycling plant. metal recycling on the southeast side of Chicago. , where many black and brown people live. In an effort to prevent the city from granting RMG its final permit, community activists have now announced a hunger strike.
The new recycling plant will house a metal crusher, which uses machinery known to produce dangerous dust particles that can cause serious heart and lung problems.
If Southside Recycling is opened, that particulate matter “will be inhaled through my students’ noses, throats and lungs,” said Chuck Stark, a high school science teacher who joined the hunger strike last week.
Chicago’s southeast side is the city’s most industrial area, home to businesses that spew more than a million pounds of toxins into the air each year. In August 2020, the city released an air quality report indicating that the south and west sides are “overloaded” by “high concentrations of industry.” And yet organizers say local officials have characterized their campaign to prevent RMG from operating in their neighborhood as making a mountain out of a molehill.
“Yes [a metal shredder] it’s not good enough for the north side, “said Gina Ramírez, referring to the area where RMG previously operated General Iron,” so it’s not good enough for the south side. “
The southeast side is a gated community, a term used to describe neighborhoods that are located next to polluting industries or facilities. In this case, the community coexists with multiple cement kilns, warehouses and toxic landfills. The area is home to two Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites, covering 154 acres in total and highly contaminated with toxic metals. The area has also had significant problems with petroleum coke (petroleum coke), manganese, and lead.
RMG’s new recycling facility would pose additional health risks. Zip code 60617, which includes most of the Southeast side, already had the highest number of asthma-related emergency calls (for those under 19) in 2017. On this front, RMG’s record isn’t exactly clean: Residents organized against General Hierro for years due to EPA violations and complaints of noise, toxic air, and health issues.
And the health consequences aren’t just physical: Multiple studies have shown that even the visual effects of living amongst industry – diesel truck streams, plumes of smoke – can cause a “higher prevalence of depression and anxiety,” said Dr. Susan Buchanan, professor of public health at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Residents say the city government allowing Southside Recycling to open is another example of Chicago prioritizing profits over the needs of the people and serving the needs of white residents over those of black and Latino communities. In recent months, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the EPA have launched civil rights investigations into whether housing discrimination and environmental racism may have played a role in the measure.
For the past two years, organizers on the southeast side have held town halls and led protests to shed light on the dangers of industrial pollution. They claim that Mayor Lori Lightfoot has encouraged RMG’s move south to make way on the north side for Lincoln Yards, a controversial megadevelopment expected to add upscale businesses and luxury homes to the area.
“It seems the city acted as a janitor for General Iron,” said Ramirez, who has lived on the East Side his entire life.
A city spokesman said it had “worked with stakeholders, including groups representing the Southeast side, to create new and stricter rules for large recycling facilities.” It is focused on helping communities hardest hit by pollution and “will continue to work to address residents’ concerns,” the spokesman said.
Ramírez’s family has deep roots in the city; his great-grandfather immigrated to Chicago in the 1930s to work at US Steel, where his grandfather and father later worked. She has seen the way environmental racism has been perpetuated in her community for years.
“Other parts of the city are turning green and [getting] sustainable infrastructure, which changes with the times, and my neighborhood is caught up in the industrial revolution, ”said Ramírez, who works as a Midwest outreach manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Ramírez’s mother developed asthma after years of living near US Steel, and Ramírez has yet to tell her immunosuppressed son to roll up the window while driving.
“It smells awful here and you don’t know [which] industry is, because there are too many to count. There are bike paths next to the Superfund sites. There are asthma vans outside our schools all the time. It’s a scary place to live at the end of the day. “
It is not an exaggeration to say that the workforce that came out of the southeast side of Chicago built the city.
Until 40 years ago, the southeast side of Chicago was an industrial powerhouse. By the early 1900s, the area had become a major manufacturing center, rivaling cities like Pittsburgh for steelmaking jobs that attracted immigrants to the region with the promise of stable work and good wages. The John Hancock Center and the Sears Tower were built with steel at the South Works, a former steel mill located in the South Chicago neighborhood.
But the promise of work came at a price. “You couldn’t breathe, it used to be so polluted,” said Dominic A Pacyga, a historian for the Southeast Side. “Women would have dirty clothes and it would be covered in silicone dust.”
When manufacturing moved overseas in the 1980s, Chicago’s steel industry basically disappeared overnight, Pacyga says, and the Southeast side, which is now mostly Black and Latino, has struggled ever since, without an appropriate investment from the city and local businesses. The neighborhood is characterized by high-voltage power lines, bridges built for diesel trucks, a six-lane elevated highway, and multiple abandoned industrial areas in need of repair.
Today, activists feel that city and industry leaders are taking advantage of the economic situation on the southeast side, using the promise of jobs to overlook the environmental and health effects of living next to a major pollutant.
In a statement to the Guardian, an RMG spokesperson, Randall Samborn, said that “the racial, ethnic and income demographics of the neighborhood” did not influence the location of Southside Recycling. He said the metal recycler would create about 100 jobs for “predominantly minorities earning head of household wages,” calling the facility “state of the art.”
But Olga Bautista, co-founder of the local environmental group Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, refers to RMG’s claims as “green washing.” Nearby, George Washington High School has seen the highest cadmium levels in the state since construction began, and Colón says his peers are applying to the northernmost selective enrollment high schools to escape the area.
The nature of these businesses makes it difficult to fully control emissions, even with regulations.
“In general, these industries … should not be located where people live,” Dr. Buchanan said. “It shouldn’t matter what type of residence it is, what color it is or what its income is.”
Crystal Guerra, who was inspired to start the Bridges / Puentes community group last year after planning local protests against police brutality, sees pollution on the Southeast side as a racial justice issue not unlike movements like Black Lives Matter.
Instead of social services and incentives for green businesses, the city’s resources go to institutions that harm its community, Guerra argues. “We want a positive investment, not a punitive investment.”
The hunger strike, now in its 11th day, may seem extreme, but organizers were inspired by education activists who, in 2015, refused solid food for 34 days and successfully lobbied to reopen Dyett High School in the Bronzeville neighborhood.
Southeast Side organizers have asked other community organizations to support them by holding a one-day hunger strike and have been sharing updates on Twitter. In all, six people have pledged to go on hunger strike until the city denies RMG his final permit, no matter how much.
But the physical consequences of a hunger strike are real. All participants were examined by a physician and taught how to monitor their vital signs before embarking on the liquid-only diet. Oscar Sánchez, co-founder of the Southeast Youth Alliance and a native of the Hegewisch neighborhood, said that for the first few days he was plagued by doubts.
Am I doing enough? Am I tweeting enough? Are we pulling our faces out enough? “he said, on his fifth day of hunger strike.
Sánchez said he has since acclimatized, and the community support he has received has only underscored the importance of the hunger strike. “If we have to risk our lives,” said Sánchez, “we do it because it is for our current generation, our future generation and our ancestors.”