She Breathes In Pollution, and Fights It, in the Windy City

NRDC’s Gina Ramirez is helping to bring attention to the wafts of manganese dust that plague her family and neighbors on Chicago’s Southeast Side.

Gina Ramirez in front of her home on Chicago’s Southeast Side

Credit: Rebecca Karamehmedovic

Four years ago, Gina Ramirez noticed tall black piles of what looked like dirt or soot not far from her home on Chicago’s Southeast Side. Some of the piles towered several stories high along the banks of the Calumet River. At the time, Ramirez was nine months pregnant and earning a master’s degree in sociology at the city’s Roosevelt University.

With a son on the way, she felt uneasy about what could be lurking in these piles hovering over Chicago’s 10th Ward, a predominantly Latino and blue-collar area that housed one of the nation’s largest steel industries until its decline in the 1970s. Today, the area (once known as Irondale) is primarily residential, but its industrial roots are obvious along the Calumet, with vacant factory properties yet to be cleaned up and some bulk cargo facilities and scrap yards still in operation. “I grew up seeing the deindustrialization of my neighborhood,” Ramirez recalls, “and I didn’t want my son to grow up in a toxic dumping ground.”

A large mound of petcoke near a residential neighborhood on Chicago’s Southeast Side
Credit: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP/REX/Shutterstock

In listening to news reports and attending a community meeting hosted by the Southeast Environmental Taskforce, Ramirez learned that those dark mounds were petroleum coke, a waste product of the oil-refining process. Also known as petcoke, this carbon-laden material that resembles coal can have hazardous health effects. As dust wafts from the piles, small particles can be inhaled and harm the lungs and heart.

Petcoke dust wasn’t the only threat coming from the industrial facilities located just across the street from the Southeast Side’s densely populated community. Ramirez also learned that manganese, a heavy metal used in steelmaking and other industrial processes, was being stored and handled along the same riverside strip. The metal is a neurotoxin and known to negatively impact brain function, impairing IQ, mental processing speed, and working memory.

Ramirez was already sorely familiar with these impacts. A third-generation Mexican-American, she notes that her great-grandfather moved from Michoacán with the promise of working in the U.S. Steel South Works plant in Chicago. Her family was proud of his work—and that of her grandfather and father, who followed in his footsteps; Ramirez says they helped produce steel used to construct countless buildings in the city. But it also took a toll. Growing up, Ramirez’s mother, who has asthma, would find red soot on top of her father’s car. Today Ramirez worries about the effect of the manganese on the health of her son, Evan, who has autism.

Ramirez with her husband and son in their home
Credit: Rebecca Karamehmedovic

The more Ramirez learned about the pollution in her backyard, the more determined she grew to intervene. In 2014 she connected with various grassroots environmental groups (including the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, where she is now a co-chair), working to bring awareness to the threats that locals faced from petcoke and manganese. The following year, she joined the staff of NRDC as a program assistant. As part of her work both at NRDC and with local groups, Ramirez goes door-to-door to meet with neighbors, some of whom still work in the area’s manufacturing industry. She explains the health hazards they face and encourages them to attend meetings with lawmakers to press for stricter laws against the pollutants in their community.

“This work is important to me because it has a direct impact on my life and on the lives of those I love,” Ramirez says.

Meleah Geertsma, a senior attorney with NRDC, says Ramirez’s role both as a Southeast Side advocate and as a member of the NRDC team has been pivotal in making progress in their shared fight. For example, her on-the-ground activism helped lead Chicago city officials to require air monitors from companies. They also agreed to set up a text-message alert system so residents could take proper precautions in the event of a petcoke wind advisory. And, even more critically, the piles of petcoke have now largely been removed as a result of the community’s advocacy.

These advancements are a testament to the persistence and organizational prowess of the neighborhood’s many activists. When city officials and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were slow to respond to their efforts, a local youth group who call themselves the Rebel Bells traveled to Washington, D.C. for a meeting with Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, organized by Moms Clean Air Force. (The Rebel Bells were born out of the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke and focus mostly on empowering young women from the neighborhood to seek social and environmental justice.) After the meeting, Durbin sent letters to S. H. Bell, one of the facilities storing the manganese, as well as to the EPA and other agencies about the issue, which helped jump-start the action the community sought.

Ramirez is also on the community advisory panel for a group called CACHET (Chicago Center for Health and Environment, a partnership of two Chicago universities), one of the many academic centers that are working on issues connected to community-level exposures to manganese. Meanwhile, one of her colleagues at the Coalition to Ban Petcoke, an organizer named Jade Mazon, regularly tours colleges and local schools to speak about manganese.

Senator Dick Durbin’s meeting with the Rebel Bells, a Southeast Side youth group
Credit: Courtesy Mom's Clean Air Force, Midwest

As for NRDC’s partnership with the community, Geertsma notes that Ramirez’s insider knowledge of the neighborhood, its sub-neighborhoods, and the multifaceted views of its residents is a great asset to the organization’s advocacy work in the area. She also notes her colleague’s extremely sharp eye regarding the policy and strategy choices for moving forward. And, as a lifelong resident of Southeast Chicago, “Gina is an incredible resource of history and information,” Geertsma says. “She's got an informed view herself of struggles parents have so their kids are not exposed to pollution.”

In addition to improving day-to-day communication with concerned residents, Chicago city officials have made some larger efforts to curb manganese in the Windy City. In March, the city council passed an ordinance that bans the opening of any new manganese-bearing facilities and the expansion of existing facilities. But there’s much more to do to combat the issue, Ramirez says. “The ordinance still allows for existing manufacturers to have manganese, and we want a complete ban on it.” The city also recently proposed to update its dust regulations, initially adopted during the petcoke uproar, to better address manganese.

In part due to the community’s awareness-raising efforts, concerned citizens within and outside Chicago have taken note of the environmental injustices borne by residents of the city’s Southeast Side. Recently, a group of teens from Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Illinois, an affluent suburb of Chicago, tuned in to the issue after watching a Vice documentary that spotlighted petcoke. Moved by what she saw, Daria Prawlocki, an environmental science teacher at the school, reached out to NRDC to see how she and her students could help.

Geertsma and Ramirez knew just the right project to offer them.

In March, six Neuqua students, a mix of juniors and seniors, began collecting soil samples in both Southeast Chicago and Naperville and testing the samples using equipment provided by Argonne National Lab. Preliminary results show a significantly lower concentration of manganese in their own hometown compared with what’s found in Ramirez’s neighborhood—with high levels on the Southeast Side recently confirmed by the Chicago Department of Public Health. (At least one sample by the city’s consultant had more than twice the level of manganese the EPA uses to identify soil in need of urgent cleanup under the federal Superfund law.)

Prawlocki and her students found the results alarming. “A significant amount of manganese is sitting on these peoples’ yards. That’s the tip of the iceberg. The next step is figuring out who’ll clean up these yards.”

Prawlocki, who worked as an environmental engineer before becoming a teacher, says that the experience was eye-opening for her students. “That’s one of the pieces I like most about teaching: the real-world, hands-on experience that students get. It helps them realize they can make real change.”

While the community has succeeded in elevating its concerns in the public eye and in getting lawmakers to sit down and discuss solutions, Geertsma notes that “the modest progress of controlling petcoke dust is moving too slowly.” Now, she adds, “we’re trying to ramp things up to promote more comprehensive land-use solutions.”

Both Geertsma and Ramirez acknowledge that there is some degree of pushback from 10th Ward residents. Many have argued that the neighborhood was founded on factory jobs and worry that calling for environmental regulations could be detrimental to the local economy.

Big Marsh bike park, Chicago’s first “eco-recreation” park built on the former Acme Steel plant site
Credit: Steven Vance/Flickr

“A lot of these plants provide some jobs, but they don’t provide that many, and they don’t employ many people in the community,” Geertsma says. She and Ramirez are focusing on the assets the community has as a whole. “These former steelworkers have skills that they could put to good use in other areas,” she observes. A Method soap factory recently opened on the South Side, as did a Whole Foods Market distribution center. And this isn’t the only development, either. Recently the Calumet Bike Park opened at Big Marsh, which calls itself “Chicago’s first eco-recreation park.” It’s built on a 278-acre swath once home to the Acme Steel plant. While the jobs that come with these developments can’t fully make up for those the area has lost, they offer hope for a community determined to make a fresh start.

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