Meet the climate activists across Chicago holding harmful companies accountable

After owning the site for 20 years in Lincoln Park, RMG’s General Iron is finalizing operations in the otherwise posh, wealthy neighborhood after years of pushback from residents. The new site’s location will move to the already environmentally blighted Southeast Side at South Burley Avenue and 116th Street. (Natalie Eilbert/MEDILL)

By Natalie Eilbert
Medill Reports

In South Deering on Chicago’s South Side, the foul odors emanating from nearby facilities are so pungent that people waiting at the bus stop at 100th Street and Torrence have nearly passed out. Landfills, recycling centers and facilities have cranked, hauled, emitted and dumped in residential areas for generations, but neighborhoods are fighting back.

Throughout the Chicago area, environmental justice organizations like Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, Southeast Youth Alliance, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, Environmental Justice Evanston, Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (P.E.R.R.O.), Southeast Environmental Task Force, Blacks in Green and many others have organized, spearheaded environmental justice resolutions and protested against environmental injustices. For these residents, it’s personal.

For Gina Ramirez, leader of the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke and the Midwest outreach manager for the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), defending the South Side is also about defending her Mexican-American bloodlines. Her great-grandfather was offered a free train ticket to South Chicago in exchange for working at US Steel.

“There was so much racism working in the mills. It was so terrible. Mexican immigrants really had to forge their own community here,” Ramirez said. Ramirez is a third-generation Southeast Side resident.

The rich cultural history — from one of the oldest Mexican Independence Day parades to the Lady of Guadalupe, the “central hub” for Mexican Catholic residents — lent enormous pride to the people of Southeast Side. Ramirez “believed the hype” about her neighborhood, but always, there was that odor.

“When we would drive to my grandma’s house, we would pass this certain factory and my parents would always clockwork say, ‘Roll up your windows.’ I always hated that, the foul odors and the piles of debris — I didn’t even know what I was looking at,” Ramirez said.

Lincoln Park residents complained for years about “fugitive dust” from scrap metal shredding. In 2018, the Air and Radiation Division of the Environmental Protection Agency slapped a citation on General Iron Industries. The EPA revealed that between 7.8 and 9% of Lincoln Park residents suffer from asthma. (Natalie Eilbert/MEDILL)

Two moments of reckoning established Ramirez’s activism. When she traveled with her father to downtown Chicago to pick up his paychecks, she saw right away the differences in air quality and cleanliness at the heart of Chicago’s metropolis. And then the 1995 heatwaves forced her and her family to drive in the car all night, because life indoors was unbearable that summer. She and her family could have died, she said.

“I carried these things to college with me and I learned the terms for them. The first time I heard ‘environmental racism,’ I thought: ‘This is my neighborhood,’” she said.

Institutional programs like the Keller Science Action Center, the conservation and community arm of the Field Museum, help young people appreciate Chicago’s natural landscapes and educate them on industrial obstacles of the past and present. Environmental educator Ian Viteri works with high school students in a program called Calumet Is My Backyard, or CIMBY. Ecology lessons about identifying local birds, plants and trees can turn into conversations about air quality rollbacks and connecting communities to nature.

“We ask what it means to be environmental stewards, which leads to talk about what’s happening in the area and natural habitats, and then that talks about pollution,” Viteri said. “Then it starts snowballing into big environmental justice issues.”

The Field Museum’s Keller Science Action Center educates young people on the presence of nature in their backyards. They work often with high school students living along the Calumet River and run a program called Calumet in My Backyard, or CIMBY. (Lise Andres/Creative Commons)

Urban Anthropology Manager Mario Longoni, also of the Keller Science Action Center, said that while they don’t directly engage with environmental justice activism, they collaborate with projects by organizations like Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF), LVEJO, P.E.R.R.O. and El Hogar del Niño.

“Our role at the Field Museum, in anything we have our fingers in, is an informational, educational, community assets developing role,” Longoni said.

One alumnus of CIMBY, Luis Cabrales, formed the Southeast Youth Alliance in his junior year of college with his cousin, Nicolas Robledo. Growing up, Cabrales became increasingly aware of the mountains of petroleum coke, more commonly referred to as petcoke, a few blocks from his house on the Southeast Side. Like Ramirez, black debris from these mounds was an everyday occurrence.

“My cousin lives right by the river,” Cabrales said. “His alley is immediately next to the old factory that used to be there on the river. Growing up — and this still blows my mind — he didn’t have windows that opened. I don’t know who made that decision, but his windows never opened because of all the dust that blew in and around.”

Viewed on top of a landfill, Big Marsh Park represents one of the only bike parks on the South Side. Luis Cabrales says that if you look across the street from the park, you’ll spot the industrial corridors that have become synonymous with the Southeast Side. On the other side, like a noxious sleeping giant, the landfills blemish the vista. “The juxtaposition of this natural area next to the landfill and the empty factories. … I love the intersections,” Cabrales says. (Steven Vances/Creative Commons)

Cabrales only graduated this August with a degree in health, but his background centers around the environment, conservation and restoration, thanks to the education the Field Museum gave him. The Southeast Youth Alliance holds annual volunteer days at Big Marsh Park, a park big enough to hold around 275 football fields.

Despite its location, it’s difficult for the Southeast Side community to get to Big Marsh Park without a car, and it’s one of the only bike parks on the South Side.   

Nancy Loeb, clinical professor with the Pritzker Law School and director of the Environmental Advocacy Group at Northwestern University, has been working with grassroots climate organizations and monitoring vulnerable regions like the South Side for years. In defending these critical communities, she notes the paradox of their work.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” she said. Loeb explained that community leaders’ push for better breathing conditions forced facilities like KCBX Terminals in the South Side, owned by Koch Industries, to put up air quality monitors about three years ago.

Only through this facilities requirement did they learn about the presence of manganese in the air. Manganese is a neurotoxin linked to Parkinson’s-type syndromes and may also affect brain development.

“As far as I know, there hasn’t been the kind of widespread testing or monitoring to know everything that’s there,” Loeb said. “So we don’t know what people are breathing.”

Ramirez still lives in the South Side busily bringing up her family’s fourth generation — her son — to the neighborhood. As a mother, she doesn’t want to have to tell her son to roll up the windows. Ramirez said that the driving force for her environmental activism is parenthood, and darkly, what her son has come to inherit.

“It just breaks my heart,” Ramirez said. “That’s why I continue to do the work that I do. No one should have to be censoring their lives or avoiding certain streets. No one should have to live like that. This is our neighborhood.”

Natalie Eilbert is a health, science and environmental reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalie_eilbert.