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What a Gutted EPA Could Mean for Chicago’s “Toxic Doughnut”

This Southeast Side community has helped give a voice to the environmental justice movement. Now Trump’s budget cuts threaten to silence it.
Chicago steel mills, July 1965

Al Silverstein/Flickr

The 7,000 residents of the Altgeld Gardens housing complex call their neighborhood the toxic doughnut. Located on Chicago’s Southeast Side, the nearly 1,600 units in the community of Riverdale sit right in the middle of a ring of brownfields, Superfund sites, and landfills. The two-story brick housing complex is surrounded by the largest concentration of hazardous waste sites in the country.

For most of the past century, the steel industry and paint manufacturing plants treated this area as a dumping ground. By the 1980s, only a few industrial operations remained, but tons of pollution were left behind. Within just one-third of a square mile were 50 festering landfills and 250 leaky underground storage tanks. The community had the highest rates of cancer in the city along with scary rates of other illness related to exposure to toxic substances.

In 1974, a gas storage tank leak displaced Altgeld Garden residents.

Sun-Times Media

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began finding elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), pesticides, and heavy metals in the soil near Altgeld Gardens in the 1990s. This is around the time the environmental justice movement began taking shape as a result of several studies showing that hazardous waste sites often crop up in low-income, minority communities. Altgeld Gardens was one of many examples around the country of this environmental racism. The residents began fighting to clean up these sites, and the EPA started providing technical assistance to local groups working to remediate the land.

That federal support, however, is now in jeopardy. In early March, President Trump proposed his “skinny budget,” which would cut the EPA’s funding by (at least) 31 percent and slash its staff by 21 percent, eliminating as many as 3,000 jobs. As part of these cutbacks, the White House proposes reducing staff and resources for the Office of Research and Development, which provides scientific expertise to monitor polluters and prosecute those that don’t comply with the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. Grants to address harmful contaminants from brownfields and Superfund sites are also up for elimination. Reports are also now circulating that the Trump administration is looking to shut down the EPA’s regional office in Chicago.

But that’s not all. While the official budget makes no mention of it specifically, a draft leaked in March states that the agency would get rid of the Environmental Justice office, combining it with the Office of Policy. Funding for environmental justice programs would also plunge―by 78 percent. The news prompted Mustafa Ali, a 24-year veteran of environmental justice at the agency, to retire. In his resignation letter, he stated that the cuts would leave the country’s most vulnerable communities at risk.

“When the general American gets the flu, the black and brown community gets pneumonia,” Cheryl Johnson says from her office in the Altgeld Gardens complex. The executive director of People for Community Recovery (PCR), a nonprofit focused on local social justice issues, says President Trump is taking her community back to the days when it had no voice in the EPA. Riverdale, the Chicago community of which Altgeld Gardens is a part, is 95 percent black and has per capita income of $7,500 a year. Like many communities near waste sites, its residents don’t have the same political connections as people living in wealthier neighbors, nor do they have much influence over where local governments allow hazardous materials. And once pollution has left its grimy mark, it’s difficult to make areas attractive to businesses.

“If we could clean up the Southeast Side of Chicago, we could clean up any part of this world,” Johnson says.

Cheryl Johnson at her mother Hazel Johnson's street dedication

Courtesy Kady McFadden

PCR has been on the forefront of the environmental justice movement for decades. After founding the group in 1979, Johnson’s mother, Hazel Johnson, received national attention for her work in the community, earning her recognition as the “mother” of the environmental justice movement. She documented her neighbors’ cancer and asthma. She pushed local officials to test the community’s air and water for pollution, and she fought for the removal of asbestos in Altgeld Gardens, where she resided until her death in 2011.

Johnson’s organizers included a young Barack Obama. And when Bill Clinton signed an executive order in 1994 addressing environmental justice, Hazel Johnson stood at his side. The picture of her and Clinton now hangs on the wall in PCR’s office next to several framed awards. Over the years, her group has pushed for PCB removal, advocated for brownfield cleanup, provided remediation training for community members looking for jobs, and brought Altgeld Gardens residents into meeting rooms with EPA officials.

“In my experience, speaking with members of other communities, those meetings can be really meaningful,” says Anjali Waikar, an attorney for NRDC who focuses on environmental justice in the Midwest. They allow people “to understand their rights and how the EPA operates, and to talk about how it handles complaints and address environmental issues more broadly,” she adds. Waikar says that without funding and personnel, those information sessions will no longer be possible.

Altgeld Gardens Rowhouses

David Shalliol

PCR is currently trying to clean up a brownfield on an old railroad property that once served as a gas station. According to the younger Johnson, the land is likely tainted with volatile organic compounds, but one day it could be a commercial property or a place used for public good. Johnson and her team asked the EPA to conduct an assessment of the railroad brownfield, and the agency said it does have enough money for the job—at least this year. As for help with any other projects they’d like to take on, they’ll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, PCR is joining other grassroots organizations, like the local Sierra Club chapter, to form a stronger and larger coalition to fight Trump’s changes. Group members plan to attend the March for Science on April 22 in Chicago and will continue to speak out against efforts to undermine their work.

If there’s any silver lining to Trump’s threats, it’s that more people are paying attention. “People have been dormant, people have been nonchalant,” Johnson says. “This is forcing people to get politically engaged in decisions that are going to have an impact on their lives.” This daughter of the movement says she will put on her boxing gloves and stand ready to fight this administration.

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