A Just Transition in Southeast Chicago

Community activists are leading a shift from dirty fuels and heavy industry to clean energy and sustainable business.

On a warm day last August, as family and friends gathered in Mari Barboza's backyard for a birthday cookout, afternoon winds whipped up a toxic torrent of jet-black dust that swept across her community on Chicago's Southeast Side. Blown from a nearby mountain of grit called petroleum coke, or petcoke,the vile fog choked the life out of the party. Mari scurried to cover food she'd prepared while neighbors scrambled to herd children inside to flee the pollution, which irritates throats and lungs and worsens asthma and other respiratory ills.

"We can't even be outdoors, we can't even open our windows," Mari explained to me last week. "We're like prisoners in our own houses," she said, as huge dump trucks rumbled past the piles of petcoke, a harmful by-product of oil refining. "We can't even have a good time in our own backyards."

For people living in southeast Chicago's aging industrial corridor between the Calumet River and Lake Michigan, toxic petcoke dust, abandoned steel mills, blighted lots, and heavily polluted waterways are all part of a sorry legacy that undercuts health, environmental quality, and economic opportunity. What's needed now, for Mari's community and many others like it across much of our industrial heartland, is a deliberate shift from the heavy industry and dirty fuels of the past to a new generation of economic growth based on the clean energy and sustainable business models of the future.

"We are part of an old industrial economy and we're looking for a just transition to a low-carbon economy, but we still have the burden of the old high-carbon economy," says Thomas Frank, an activist with the Southeast Environmental Task Force, standing up for communities along the Calumet industrial corridor. "We're locked into the economic patterns and land-use patterns of the old industries."

The community is held hostage by its need for good jobs, while trapped by its history as an aging industrial, waste disposal, and fossil fuel sacrifice zone. "It's slowly dying," says Peggy Salazar, executive director of the Task Force. "That's what happens when you don't invest in a community."

The community, though, refuses to die, in part because of the heroic stand that people like Mari, Thomas, and Peggy are taking to fight for a brighter tomorrow. "We want job creation, but we want it to be correctly done from the beginning and be sustainable for the environment and the future," Peggy says. "We see the opportunity for us to change the conversation and the potential for renewable energy sources, moving away from fossil fuels to renewables."

The community is determined to play its role in the shift to a clean energy future. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Calumet industrial corridor was a center of heavy industry that helped to define American enterprise and might. The community made steel for the railroads and bridges that formed the sinew and spine of American commerce. With access to the river and Lake Michigan alongside junctions of highways and railroads, the region provided an unparalleled transportation hub for shipping U.S. products -- across the country and around the world. And it produced basic materials for the automobiles that moved the nation and the tanks that helped secure our freedom.

The region held a central place in the organized-labor movement and hosted major ethnic communities that brought their own sets of skills and cultural contributions, while the area's natural lakes, rivers, and wetlands nourished a rich and vibrant web of wildlife.

The residents are rightly proud of their heritage and eager to be partners in the new economy that's remaking our country once again. They want to help build the wind turbines, solar panels, and hybrid and all-electric cars that can move the country forward.

"We make things in this neighborhood. We're union workers," says Olga Bautista, a mother of two who heads up the Chicago South East Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke. "We want this area to be a model for the rest of the world of what a sustainable and green economy can look like."

That's far more than a pipe dream. Through a plan called the Calumet Area Vision, the coalition has outlined a promising way to pull together the region's natural, cultural, historical, and economic assets into a cohesive and viable whole.

"This is one of the oldest and largest industrial complexes in the world," says Frank. "To be able to reposition it in a new, greener economy would be a great win."

It would be a win for all of us.

That's why NRDC is standing with these community leaders, helping to provide such expertise as we can, while learning from the experiences these community leaders share and the example of assertive activism they set.

Image removed.
L to R: Olga Bautista, Mari Barboza (obscured), Isra Pananon, Henry Henderson, Elizabeth Corr, Rhea Suh.

We're working together to get rid of the mountains of petcoke that threaten the health of residents and loom over the Calumet River like some toxic omen of doom. We're challenging other misguided projects that seek to perpetuate land uses that would sentence the future of the region to the depredations of the past and reinforce its role as a sacrifice zone. And we're working to advance the Calumet Area Vision as a way to leverage the region's unique character and strengths to create a future of promise and hope.

It starts by recognizing the past glory and true potential of this special corridor of people and place. As Thomas Frank puts it, "We have to get this place labeled 'Too big to fail.'"