Chicagoans Battle Manganese Dust Pollution

Southeast Side residents have been plagued by a heavy metal that’s known to negatively impact the brain function of children.

This is a transcript of the video.

Gina Ramirez, program assistant, NRDC: I want my son to be healthy and thriving, and I want him to have the same access to a healthy environment as other children in the city.

Just a few blocks away from my house is an array of industrial facilities that impact my life on a daily basis. On any given day, I smell foul odors, so I have to close the windows in my home. Residents have to be vigilant to look for potential dust omitting from these factories. And it's a really big burden because we're trying to work and live our lives and enjoy our children.

(News anchor: The Environmental Protection Agency today cited a Southeast Side company for excessive emissions of a toxic metal dust. The S. H. Bell Company has been under investigation for releasing potentially hazardous levels of manganese dust, which can have potentially devastating neurological effects on nearby residents.)

Olga Bautista, treasurer, Southeast Environmental Task Force: We learned that

manganese was being stored on open piles at a company called S. H. Bell. There was a lot of risk because there's families who live literally across the street from this company.

Every time there was a gust of wind, they were in danger.

Ramirez: I had never heard the term "manganese." I was immediately concerned about my child and the children of my neighborhood. It can cause developmental disabilities and affect the IQ of small children when inhaled.

Immediately, I got together with some other community activists, and we held various meetings in my neighborhood just sort of educating residents.

(Ramirez at community meeting: I've been living amongst piles, pollution, and dust for my entire life, and I don't want that same narrative for my son.)

A lot of parents who lived near that facility were very shocked and wanted

to know more about it. And they immediately asked, "Is this coming into my home?” "Is this in my soil?"

Peggy Salazar, executive director, Southeast Environmental Task Force: So the manganese is stored because it's used in the steel-making industry. We don't make steel on the Southeast Side of Chicago at all anymore. So because we have the waterways, and it's cheap to barge and ship things in, we have become the transfer points for any type of material that's needed in these other industries.

Bautista: The Department of Public Health began to do soil testing at residents' houses, so

front lawns, back lawns.

Ramirez: We received this map from the Chicago Department of Public Health. Houses nearest S.H. Bell had the highest concentrations of manganese in their soil.

Bautista: More than anything, I wanted to find out that this company actually has a good way of handling this product, and I'm not in danger. But that's not the case.

Salazar: We would like them to actually put a moratorium on some of these operations until we have more information in terms of health impacts. It doesn't make sense to have these companies still operating while we're trying to investigate and figure out what to do.

Stop it, stop the industries right now.

Meleah Geertsma, attorney, NRDC: One of the problems that you see in cities is simply that there are communities that have grown up immediately next to industrial areas. And at one point, we didn't understand what some of that pollution from the industry did to people. But we know now, and yet there's still this attitude that, oh, OK, that place has a lot of contamination, a lot of crap in it. And so it's easier for us to just put more crap there rather than finding somewhere else to put it.

There's a need again to revisit this assumption that this is their lot in life, that they are the sacrifice zone so that the rest of us do not have piles of neurotoxins next door.

Ramirez: I think that the city views the Southeast Side as still living in the 20th century, and they don't have a vision for the 21st century for my neighborhood that includes green infrastructure and clean jobs.

There needs to be equity in the city. The burden shouldn't just be in my neighborhood and on the residents of my community. We've suffered long enough.

Salazar: It scares me that our government doesn't look at communities like ours and say, "Hey, we need to invest some funding into cleanups over there, because we need to be able to reuse those properties."

We need to address parts of the country that have the old industry and the legacy that's there.

Geertsma: The gap between people who live in burdened communities and those who do not remains. Even though we may be making progress on some levels, we're not bringing up everybody to an equal basis.

I would like us to see zoning as a tool for promoting people's health, as opposed to keeping people in unhealthy situations.

Bautista: We need steel. We need the goods that are coming through on this river, but it shouldn't make us sick.

Ramirez: Time is of the essence. My son is growing up so fast. He's three years old already. I want the city to take swift action. Every day that my son is exposed to this pollutant is another day that he might one day be really sick.

And he deserves the best.

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