A zoomed-in screenshot of the map of the UIC study on toxic release inventory (TRI) sites' proximity to neighborhood schools shows the relative burden by community area and how McKinley Park is surrounded by some of the most severely impacted neighborhoods.

Surrounded by "Worst of the Worst" - Environmental Justice Study Tallies Toxic Sites Versus School Populations

Published May 15, 2021

A just-released study from the University of Illinois - Chicago (UIC) School of Public Health breaks new ground in measuring disparities in environmental impact by comparing Chicago's federally listed Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) sites with nearby school populations. The study's results have illustrated a dire situation, said UIC Professor Michael Cailas, lead researcher and one of the authors of the study.

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“For McKinley Park, it’s not the worst," he said. "The sad story is that it’s surrounded by the worst of the worst.”

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Environmental Justice Neighborhood Schools Chicago UIC study mapThe map from the UIC environmental justice study illustrates relative burden for school populations for proximity to Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) sites.The "Environmental Justice and Neighborhood Schools in Chicago, Illinois" study comes from Cailas and fellow UIC researchers Joel Flax-Hatch and Apostolis Sambanis, the same team who first tallied and published on the Southwest Side's TRI sites, as previously reported here in the McKinley Park News. The study's main goal is "to provide the means to visualize the level of disparities in the City of Chicago regarding the proximity of TRI reporting facilities to schools."

Alarming Disparities

The study does this by relying on verifiable public data about the TRI sites, which are monitored and regulated by the U.S. government, and school populations as based on attendance at Chicago Public Schools neighborhood schools, which are much more likely to serve a nearby population of students than magnet or selective enrollment schools.

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The study found alarming disparities across the City of Chicago, Cailas said, and especially off-the-charts numbers for the New City Community Area immediately south of the McKinley Park neighborhood.

“There’s no comparison anywhere else in Chicago,” Cailas said. “New City is the only community area in Chicago that has eight TRIs. This map is a picture of disparity.”

Bivariate Study

Environmental Justice Neighborhood Schools Chicago UIC study bivarate local mapMapped results of the bivariate analysis of the UIC environmental justice study show relative burden of Toxic Release Inventory sites as compared to neighborhood Latino students.The McKinley Park Comunity Area has no listed TRI sites, with R&B Powder Coating lying closest at 4000 S. Bell Ave. in the Central Manufacturing District. However, the adjacent New City, Lower West Side, South Lawndale and Brighton Park community areas appear in the study as some of the most burdened areas.

The UIC study also explored the racial dimensions of disparities by considering the percentage of Latino students relative to their burden from nearby TRIs. New City is again a huge outlier in this bivariate study comparison, joining the city's heaviest TRI use with predominantly Latino school kids. South Lawndale, which includes the Little Village neighborhood, and the Lower West Side also appear as heavily burdened, predominantly Latino areas.

Another part of the study breaks down citywide Latino students' exposure by TRI distance at 1/2 mile, 1 mile, 1-1/2 mile and 2 mile distances. Results show a consistently uneven distribution of burden seen by Latino students at all distances.

Measuring Environmental Justice

In the study, Cailas and the UIC research team break new ground by establishing first-of-their kind metrics for measuring environmental justice. “Everybody is talking about environmental justice, but nobody can document it,” Cailas said.

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The core formula developed by Cailas' team first establishes a TRI School Burden Score by measuring the number of TRI sites in a one-mile radius from each school:

(TRI School Burden)i = (PSS x TRIs)i

PSS is the percent of neighborhood schools students (from the total school population) in each school, i.
TRIs are the number of TRI reporting facilities within a one-mile radius of the school.

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To measure burden by community area, the UIC team developed and employed the following formula:

Environmental Justice Neighborhood Schools Chicago UIC study TRI school burden formula
In this formula, nz is the number of schools in community area, z

More Studies are Coming

Cailas said that the study comparing TRIs to local school populations is one of a number planned by his team and called it one of many necessary steps toward developing more advanced metrics such as risk scores for local populations.

In the meantime, the numbers show that New City and similar areas have hit their limits for industrial development without greening of industry, Cailas said.  “These areas have reached their capacity, and beyond that cannot continue.”

Environmental Justice Neighborhood Schools Chicago UIC study relative burden chart
A chart from the UIC environmental justice study illustrates how the New City Community Area is a massive outlier for the burdens that neighborhood school students face from proximity to Toxic Release Inventory sites.

Cailas noted both federal and Chicago initiatives to implement environmental justice measures. The study referenced the Illinois Environmental Justice Act, which mandates that communities "not receive less than an equitable share of environmental protection and benefits."

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Politicization of Environmentalism

Cailas bemoaned the politicization he has seen within local environmental groups, some of which focus on a single facility while ignoring both bigger picture issues and other nearby emissions sources that are similar or more harmful, he said.

"You focus on a tree, you miss the forest,” Cailas said. "It’s not an issue of one TRI, or asphalt plant, or warehouse."

"The issue is a structural problem,” he said. "We want a comprehensive approach to solve this problem.”

Audrey Teabow
Perhaps starting with one tree will domino the others around it?
Justin Kerr
I think Calais' point is that it won't. The land use designated for over a third of McKinley Park is commercial/industrial, with almost all of that set up as "planned manufacturing districts" that explicitly allow by right all sorts of industrial development. (This is why no special hearing was required for MAT Asphalt to get built.) Removing one facility would not stop something just as or more impactful taking its place, or being built right next door.

There seems to be a huge disconnect between the single facility that gets protested as compared to other nearby sources: There are actual, significant, nearby, on-the-record environmental violators that have never been addressed by our local, vocal environmental advocates.

Huge nearby polluters have also recently received big expansions of their operating permits to emit toxins, yet no activist or advocate alerts the community or raises objections. For example, Wheatland Tube, which is one of the biggest Toxic Release Inventory sites around, got a giant operating permit expansion in 2019. Right now, the former conference showroom at Halsted and Pershing is set to be transformed into a "medium hazard" facility. But if you listen for analysis or concern on this environmentally impactful development, you hear crickets.

Note that these developments have not been covered in the McKinley Park News because they're not in our coverage area.

So what's going on? As a journalist, it's important to ask why, and I can't help but notice the political element tied to every MAT protest, as well as many other things that make me scratch my head. (To keep myself honest, I self-audited by making a "credulity matrix" listing all the various acts and actions on all sides of this story.)

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