Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods have struggled against big industry for decades

pilsen corner
The Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods have endured a century’s worth of pollution. On the corner of West 16th Street and Laflin Street, mural work intersects with Lakeside Lithography, LLC, a company that “always has a stink,” according to Pilsen resident Troy Hernandez. (Natalie Eilbert/MEDILL)

By Natalie Eilbert
Medill Reports

Lead and other heavy metals have laced everyday life in Pilsen and Little Village since the Industrial Revolution. Whether detected in the air at quadruple the national standard or enmeshed in the soil, countless missteps and degrees of negligence at the industry level have left these neighborhoods with a big, dangerous mess.

When Hilco contractors imploded the shuttered Crawford Station smokestack in April, Pilsen and Little Village residents were blanketed in a cloud of chemical particulates for days. Images of the incident went viral. Hilco Development issued an apology and fired a contractor, but for residents, it was only the latest in a vicious cycle. Light and heavy industries along the industrial corridor have been leaking volatile particulates into the air for as long as there has been industry here.

According to P.E.R.R.O. (Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization), the brass and bronze foundry H. Kramer & Company had been releasing an average of 2,544 pounds of lead into Pilsen from 1994 to 2003—this environmental injustice was the original push to form P.E.R.R.O. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory facility report on H. Kramer & Company puts the amount of lead emitted into the environment at a staggering 41,496 pounds over that same 10-year period.

For over a decade, Fisk Generating Station, another facility in Pilsen, has been pummeling the air with hundreds of thousands of pounds of barium, lead, manganese, hydrochloric acid and nine other dangerous compounds.

The adage goes that what goes up must come down, and this is where soil experts come into play. Shelby Hatch, a chemist at Northwestern University, specializes in soil contamination. In 2003, she and her students joined P.E.R.R.O. to collect and analyze soil in the Pilsen neighborhood.

“It was known that [power plants] were operating without proper controls. And so there was lots of particulate matter,” Hatch said. “When you’re burning coal and not cleaning it—as if there is such a thing—you have all these particulates, and the particulates themselves are causing health issues.”

Chicago has long been struck by higher rates of asthma than the national average. And Hatch said that asthma-related issues are only one of the many health problems exposure to particulates can have on the body: They can exacerbate lung diseases, respiratory illnesses and cardiovascular illnesses, too.

Pilsen residents have filed complaints with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for years against facilities like H. Kramer & Company, Fisk Generating Station, Sims Metal Management, Lakeside Lithography LLC and others. Tests and observations by the EPA have led to remediation, as in the case of H. Kramer & Company’s massive soil cleanup, but they have also gone nowhere, after tests revealed nontoxic levels of chemicals.

Still, even if the chemicals being released aren’t technically toxic, University of Illinois at Chicago professor Donald Wink said that unpleasant chemical odors degrade the quality of life, distract students from learning and, importantly, alert the brain that something isn’t right.

“We have these feedback mechanisms with odor that are associated with avoiding dangerous situations, and they are visceral,” Wink said. “Part of the Illinois code is against noxious odors—that’s because somebody’s recognizing that it doesn’t have to be toxic to wreck your life.”

Troy Hernandez, a volunteer with P.E.R.R.O., a lifelong resident of Pilsen, and the Green Party 25th Ward Committeeman, said that he and other volunteers spend a good deal of their time writing emails to the federal or Illinois EPA and that it’s a lot of waiting. Sometimes, they’ll show the EPA their own tests in the process and additional attention is paid.

“Then it goes through the bureaucratic process and that takes years, but it actually results in millions of dollars in new backyards, $100,000 in fines, changes to things,” Hernandez said. “And so when you’re working on the timescale of decades … it’s not really glorious work.”

For Hernandez and many other volunteers who are forced to work at this glacial pace, it’s this slow grind that eventually proves successful.

Looking beyond the recent Hilco implosion, this timeline follows the last decade of Clean Air Act violations, settlements and environmental justice incidents in Pilsen and Little Village.

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