Chicago Communities Get Relief from Cement Dust Pollution

Ozinga Pilsen
Credit: Ozinga Pilsen image via Google Earth

This summer brought more good news for Chicago-area communities struggling with dust and other industrial pollution, following the removal of outdoor petroleum coke and coal piles at KCBX’s Southeast Side facility. In late June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced an important settlement with Ozinga, a longstanding Chicago-area concrete and building materials company, over dust pollution from its facilities in Pilsen and near Lake Calumet. Building off of EPA’s experience with the KCBX facilities, the agency’s settlement with Ozinga requires the company to beef up dust control measures at the Pilsen and Calumet sites and Ozinga’s other 13 facilities in Illinois. The company also committed to replacing old, dirty diesel trucks with newer, cleaner trucks and using a new underground system for moving sand and coarse aggregates at one Des Plaines facility.

The fact that EPA even brought this case is notable: dust pollution is a common public health problem that is also commonly overlooked or ignored by both companies and agencies. But in Chicago, recent experience with black clouds of petroleum coke and coal dust blowing into communities has raised the profile of dust pollution and triggered enhanced interest from enforcement agencies. The Ozinga settlement shows that coke and coal handling facilities are not the only ones responsible for high local levels of so-called particulate matter (a.k.a. “PM”) pollution, which generally is associated with respiratory harms and other health impacts.

Cement dust in particular is a topic of much concern for construction and cement plant workers, as reflected by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s guide for concrete manufacturing. The guide warns: “Exposure to cement dust can irritate eyes, nose, throat and the upper respiratory system. Skin contact may result in moderate irritation to thickening/cracking of skin to severe skin damage from chemical burns. Silica exposure can lead to lung injuries including silicosis and lung cancer.” Other government agency sources note the high rate of silicosis deaths in the construction industry and that construction worker exposures to crystalline silica frequently exceed health-based limits used by government agencies. While community members living, working or playing near cement plants and construction sites are likely exposed to much lower levels of silica than workers in these industries, the levels are not negligible. Even where silica levels in particular do not exceed dangerous levels, the overall contribution of cement facilities’ dust pollution to local ambient PM levels can be high.

Ozinga cement mixer
Credit: Arvell Dorsey, Jr. via Flickr

With respect to the problems at the Ozinga facilities, the settlement describes visible dust traveling over the sites’ property lines when trucks left the facilities, as well as dust blowing into the South Branch of the Chicago River in conjunction with barge loading and off-loading. When during a 2014 site visit EPA inspectors asked for a copy of the required dust plan describing how the facilities would control dust to comply with state requirements, facility personnel initially provided only an out-of-date plan from 1987, which lacked much of the required information about operations and controls. Moreover, EPA observed the same types of dust problems a year after this initial inspection and inquiry of the company, even though the company was aware of the investigation and EPA had issued it a notice of violation two months prior. A search of community complaints received by the City of Chicago shows that issues with dust from Ozinga’s Chicago operations date back to (at least) the mid-1990s, with trucks and barge loading called out in particular.

Credit: Ian Freimuth via Flickr

The neighborhoods surrounding Ozinga’s Pilsen and Calumet facilities are, unsurprisingly, predominantly working class communities of color. The majority of Pilsen’s population, concentrated to the west of Ozinga’s facility, is Latino; Chinatown lies just to the east of Ozinga’s barge loading facility across the Chicago River. The Calumet facility lies between the Roseland and South Deering neighborhoods, which are predominantly African-American and Hispanic. But cement dust isn’t an issue that burdens only these types of neighborhoods. Out in Des Plaines’ 3rd Ward, which houses Ozinga’s Wolf Road plant, the population is both whiter and higher income. Last year, residents filed complaints with their alderwoman over dust from the facility.

Unfortunately, Chicago’s 2014 enhanced dust regulations, adopted in response to the coke and coal problems, contain an exemption for construction materials. Fortunately for city and state residents, the federally-enforceable state regulations under which EPA brought the Ozinga case do not.

We applaud EPA for taking harmful dust seriously and reaching this settlement with Ozinga. It is positive to see the company agree to relief extending beyond the two Chicago facilities and supplemental environmental projects that will reduce toxic diesel pollution alongside the dust reductions. But the history of inattention from a company that claims to make community relationships a priority—including a year during which Ozinga was under active investigation—is disheartening. NRDC supports community members’ efforts to modernize and transform Pilsen, Little Village, Calumet and other similar areas where homes, schools, playgrounds and places of worship exist next to industrial areas. They deserve better. 

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