Neighbors for Environmental Justice member Robert Beedle speaks about the group at its July 26 meeting after being introduced by member Lino Rodriguez.

Environmental Justice Group Launches as Counterpoint to New Industrial Development

Published August 10, 2018

Neighbors for Environmental Justice, a recently formed, grassroots group based in the McKinley Park neighborhood, launched its programs and advocacy with a well-attended community meeting and the rollout of specific projects, including a new air quality sensor network. Formed as a response to the quickly built MAT Asphalt plant at 2055 W. Pershing Road, the environmental justice group seeks to keep an eye on current industry, counter the environmental impact of encroaching industry and hold elected officials accountable for harmful pollution in the area.

"What is to come to the South Side?" asked group member Kim Wasserman, a McKinley Park resident and the executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO). She was one of several speakers at the group's July 26 community meeting, when she highlighted Chicago's dislocated North and West side industries now seeking new homes, as well as the City of Chicago's flawed process for approving new industrial development.

The community meeting, held at Crosspoint Community Church at 3659 S. Honore St., included speaking by several of the volunteer members of the group, all McKinley Park neighborhood residents. Member Robert Beedle spoke and described the group as a collective of about a dozen concerned neighbors who convene weekly. The community meeting was the group's first official event and announcement of its programs, now that it is ready to come out to the public, Beedle said.

Politics of the Environment

The political aspects of both the MAT Asphalt plant project and the development process were focuses of meeting speakers, including member Christina Martinez, who listed the group's specific outreach to local elected officials. Neighbors for Environmental Justice members have met with 12th Ward Alderman George Cardenas, Illinois 2nd District State Representative Theresa Mah, Cook County 7th District Commissioner-elect Alma Anaya and Illinois 1st District State Senator Anthony "Tony" Muñoz, Martinez said. All promised to continue their engagement in environmental issues, she said. 

Neighbors for Environmental Justice meeting 20180726 Christina MartinezAt the July 26 meeting, group member Christina Martinez speaks on the outreach conducted with local politicians.The group formally presented a series of specific requests to these politicians, Martinez said, including a request that Cardenas work to move the location of the asphalt plant and seek stronger environmental protection laws and transparency in his role as head of the Chicago City Council's Committee on Health and Environmental Protection. The request also asked that Cardenas pause approval of any major industrial projects until either a community development process is put into place, or the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) releases its neighborhood plan, currently under development.

On the state level, the group formally requested that Mah and Muñoz partner together to "make environmental justice a priority" in their legislative agendas, and to strengthen oversight and transparency at the state level. The group noted Mah's publication on her website of all the environmental notices her office receives from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA), something Mah said in a letter to the group that she will continue to do. Mah also noted in her letter her concern over the problems with transparency and enforcement at the IEPA, and a commitment to improving the health and environment of the community.

Cardenas has communicated in a number of different ways about the asphalt plant, including his participation in the April 27 meeting sponsored by the 12th Ward Independent Political Organization. His website's Business & Development page notes the motivation of creating relevant employment opportunities for local residents and that "our residents and their economic vitality should not be used as a political ploy by local groups that are using the issue as a platform."

In addition to meeting with Neighbors for Environmental Justice representatives, Cardenas and the 12th Ward office have helped to organize tours of the asphalt plant by residents and community groups. At the community meeting, Martinez noted Cardenas' statement in a Questions and Answers document that  “if the plant proves to be a danger to the community and does not comply with EPA regulations, we will take the necessary steps to ensure it relocates elsewhere.”

More recently, U.S. Representative Luis Gutiérrez jumped into the controversy surrounding the asphalt plant with an August 6 letter to Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the letter, Gutiérrez asks that the EPA conduct a review of the MAT Asphalt plant for compliance with all environmental regulations, monitor air quality in the area and "provide all possible resources to the local community to reduce negative health effects."

Local Air Monitoring

Neighbors for Environmental Justice meeting 20180726 PurpleAir screen 20180803A screen capture from the @swsideair Twitter account shows a pollution spike in the group's PurpleAir monitors recorded on August 3.One of the most significant current projects of Neighbors for Environmental Justice is its local air quality monitoring network, funded by community donations, Beedle said at the community meeting. The equipment, networking and methodology come from PurpleAir, a company set up to help local residents monitor air pollution. So far, the environmental justice group's network includes seven monitors — five in the McKinley Park neighborhood, one in Little Village and one in Back of the Yards — with plans to continue expanding the network as funding and support allows, Beedle said.

Live and historical air quality readings are available through the PurpleAir website, which displays results from the group's monitors. Beedle noted that this includes data measuring specific types of pollution, including highly hazardous particulate matter, and that the sensors use some specific methods to ensure their accuracy.

The group has started up a Twitter account (@swsideair) that they're using to document air quality readings and note significant pollution events, Beedle said. A link at bit.ly/SWChiAir points at the PurpleAir page for the McKinley Park neighborhood.  "This is what we're providing to the community," Beedle said.

Zoned for Industry

At the community meeting, Wasserman delved into what parts of Chicago are most directly impacted by industry. She showed how the McKinley Park neighborhood is nearly entirely surrounded by or including land that the City of Chicago officially designates as an industrial corridor. In addition, large parts of the neighborhood are part of or adjacent to Planned Manufacturing District (PMD) Number 8, which also affords special land use protections to industry.

Neighbors for Environmental Justice meeting 20180726 audienceMore than 70 people attend the July 26 meeting at Crosspoint Community Church.Industrial corridors are already zoned for industry, Wasserman said, and the alderman and the Chicago Plan Commission don't get involved and have no influence unless a new project requires a zoning change. In addition, Planned Manufacturing Districts have many uses that are explicitly permitted by right, such as the petroleum-based manufacturing designation of the asphalt plant, which is sited inside PMD 8.

Wasserman criticized many aspects of Chicago's process for assessing the impacts of new industrial development. For example, she said, the City of Chicago's industrial corridor modernization process, launched in 2016, does not address the needs or concerns of specific neighboring communities.

Another example is Chicago Department of Transportation traffic studies that are only considered at the end of the planning process. "By the time a project gets to the public planning commission, it is too late" for meaningful public engagement, she said.

The increase in heavy truck traffic to the asphalt plant was another concern highlighted at the community meeting. Nancy Meza of LVEJO spoke on the dangers of diesel truck pollution and how the Illinois Department of Transportation has classified Pershing Road as an officially designated Class II truck route, which allows trucks of any interstate-legal size and weight.

Although natural gas-powered trucks afford some benefits, Meza said, "the long-term goal is electric."

McKinley Park's Industrial Future

At the community meeting, Neighbors for Environmental Justice group member Pete DeMay spoke on the advantages of locally based, sustainable manufacturing and the particular benefits this would deliver to the local labor force. "Our demographic is different," DeMay said, with high unemployment in McKinley Park and nearby neighborhoods, and a 24 percent poverty rate in McKinley Park.

Neighbors for Environmental Justice meeting 20180726 Pete DeMayGroup member Pete DeMay speaks on sustainable manufacturing at the community meeting.Manufacturing suits McKinley Park's population particularly well, DeMay said, and jobs in this sector pay much better than service industry jobs. Many residents currently have to travel for their manufacturing jobs, he said, and for every new manufacturing job, between three and 16 additional jobs are created to support it.

DeMay offered several local examples of sustainable manufacturing development, including The Plant in the Back of the Yards neighborhood and The Hatchery on the near West Side. He also noted the Center for Neighborhood Technology's extensive study of the Central Manufacturing District, which recommended an approach of integrated manufacturing for the area.

DeMay also highlighted the CMAP neighborhood plan as an opportunity for residents to submit input on what they want to see happen in the neighborhood's industrial areas, and he shared the mckinleypark.metroquest.com link where residents can participate online.

Neighbors for Environmental Justice related through their official email channel their approach regarding new development: "We are taking a position to strongly discourage new industry which requires pollution or special use permits. We have our share of current industry that is heavy, permitted and polluting." The group also said in its email that it is not planning to focus on existing local businesses that predate the group. 

New truck traffic will also be a major criteria of assessing the impact of new businesses in the area, the email said. "Perhaps the most interesting possibility is a down-zoning of some of the PMD," specifically the areas south of 35th Street and east of Ashland Avenue, and the part of the Central Manufacturing District between its existing historic buildings and the inter-modal rail yard just south of it. "That is clearly a multi-year process," the email said.

Locally Produced Asphalt

On the same day that Neighbors for Environmental Justice hosted its community meeting, MAT Asphalt plant co-owner Michael Tadin Jr. and staff from his MAT Construction business were preparing McKinley Park's Damen Avenue for resurfacing with asphalt produced just down the road.

Tadin again noted the benefits that MAT Asphalt brings to Chicago taxpayers by upending the local asphalt market: His bid for repaving Chicago's south region, which includes the current work on Damen Avenue, came in at several hundred thousand dollars below the next lowest bid, he said. 

He also reiterated that the plant was operating responsibly and well within the limits set by its operating permit. He acknowledged the presence of the additional truck traffic, but estimated that it comprised a low percentage of the total truck traffic that uses Pershing Road as a Class II truck route.

Neighbors for Environmental Justice meeting 20180726 Lucy StanfieldGroup member Lucy Stanfield shares how they used the Freedom of Information Act to compel disclosure from the IEPA.Tadin said "the website is coming up" for MAT Asphalt, and it will include detailed information about the environmental impact readings and data from the plant, inspection regimens and oversight by the IEPA, and a channel for members of the community to submit concerns. He said the plant is supporting environmentally responsible operations by offering products such as GreenPatch, and that it is remaining abreast of emerging, lower-impact technologies like warm-mix asphalt, increased use of recycled materials and porous and "perpetual pavement" road construction. 

Ongoing Environmental Activism

Neighbors for Environmental Justice member Alfredo Romo shared the group's many communications channels at the meeting, including its email newsletter at tinyletter.com/N4EJchicago, its Facebook page at fb.com/N4EJchicago, its document repository about the asphalt plant at bit.ly/asphaltplant and its @N4EJchicago Twitter account.

Romo also shared information on how to report pollution incidents at the asphalt plant, including documenting them and then communicating with the 12th Ward office, calling 311, alerting the IEPA and EPA, and calling MAT Asphalt community liaison Nick Demitro at (773) 842-6425.

Group member Lucy Stanfield, who spoke at length about the Freedom of Information Act requests the group used to uncover lapses in community notification at the IEPA, noted at the community meeting that the current operating permit for MAT Asphalt is provisional, and the IEPA will review the plant's performance for one year before it approves the final permit.

She said that Neighbors for Environmental Justice will be closely monitoring MAT Asphalt and other local industry, as well as working to improve the process of community engagement when new industry comes to the neighborhood. "We don't want this to happen again," she said.

Michael Tadin Jr paves Damen Avenue 20180727MAT Asphalt co-owner Michael Tadin Jr. stands alongside MAT Construction staffers as they prep Damen Avenue for resurfacing with locally produced asphalt.


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