From One Mayor To The Next: Polluted Communities Still Dealing With Life And Death


Community members from some of the most polluted areas in Chicago gathered at a public hearing on Oct. 3 to express their concerns about the Cumulative Impact Assessment (CIA).

Many criticized the study’s emphasis on census tracts that exclude specific neighborhoods from being considered Environmental Justice (EJ) neighborhoods.

“That study’s no good,” Baltazar Enriquez, president of the Little Village Community Council, said. “We just don’t have the passion of really fighting for the environment like we should.”

Enriquez and other community members also said that the study did not fully consider biodiesel trucks that drive through their streets and industrial corridors that flank their homes.

Ed McNamara spoke on behalf of Gregory Galluzo, a resident of Chicago’s West Side. He explained that Galluzo was rushed to the hospital the night before due to pneumonia and could not attend the hearing.

“The problem with our air is what I’m saying is the cause of that,” he said.

McNamara also criticized the study’s reliance on census tracts, which excluded Galluzo’s neighborhood in Pilsen from being considered an EJ neighborhood, despite a metal recycler near his home and a railroad switching yard across from his grandchildren’s school.

The hearing was a chance for alderpersons to receive feedback from the community before they create an ordinance that the city will implement in the coming months.

In September, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration completed a baseline report for the CIA in compliance with Chicago’s Environmental Justice Executive Order and an agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

While the CIA is the first of its kind in Chicago, activists remain wary of where the study is headed. Many expressed their support of the CIA but feared it would be enough.

“Now comes the hard part,” Alfredo Romo, executive director of Neighbors for Environmental Justice, said. “We must hold city departments accountable to the promises they made in their environmental justice actions plans — promises made not just to the federal government but to the people of Chicago.”

Chairwomen Maria Hadden and Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez acknowledged the criticisms and assured community members that this was only the beginning.

“You are not going to have to fight us to follow up on this and to make sure we get it right,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said. “Because we want to get it right.”

Activists in Chicago’s cross-section of communities of color and heavily polluted industrial corridors are once again playing the waiting game. This time, they hope the trail of broken promises will end.

A Meeting Gone Awry

On the first floor of Chicago City Hall, a small crowd of about 25 people began to form. The group, a multiracial conglomerate of people young and old, patiently awaited to meet with Chief of Staff Rich Guidice, a meeting allegedly scheduled in advance for Aug. 17.

One woman stood out from the crowd. She seemed to know everyone, greeting the people around her with a friendly smile on her face, and like a few others, she was sporting a black t-shirt that read “BRANDON JOHNSON FOR MAYOR” in bold white letters.

The woman is community activist Theresa McNamara, chairperson of the Southwest Environmental Alliance (SEA).

On Aug. 17, McNamara and Tanya Lozano, chairwoman of Healthy Hood, gathered environmental activists from the Southwest Side at City Hall. The goal was to give Mayor Brandon Johnson and his administration a gentle reminder of what they had promised during his campaign – to manage polluters in communities of color like theirs and revive the city’s Department of Environment.

The group had come not to protest but to demonstrate their continuous support for the mayor and his effort to address environmental inequities.

But the affair quickly soured when city staff refused to let them go to the fifth floor to meet with Mayor Brandon Johnson’s Chief of Staff, Rich Guidice.

Instead, Deputy of Community Engagement Sara Mathers and Deputy Chief Sustainability Officer Jared Policicchio met the group in the main hallway. They came on behalf of the recently created Office of Climate and Environmental Equity (OCEE). People turned to each other in confusion, asking in hushed tones what was happening and if they were still going to see Guidice.

McNamara perplexed herself, decisively gathered the group in a circle, and began the scheduled demonstration anyway.

Apollonia Jackson, Lozano’s 10-year-old daughter, stood at the center with her younger brother, Bryan Jackson Jr., beside her. The young girl shared her family’s experience with asthma and attributed it to the poor air quality in the Pilsen neighborhood where they live.

“We’re still here. We’re still fighting,” Lozano Jackson said. “We deserve to breathe clean air.”

The speech galvanized the group, but hearing Jackson in the noisy hallway was sometimes challenging. As people realized they would not be seeing Guidice and would not be given a quieter space for the rest of the demonstration, the group’s cheery enthusiasm deflated like a balloon after a pinprick. Confusion turned into frustration.

“People are dying, people are sick, and people are making money out of us,” 14-year-old Joshua Graves said, his biting words matching the tension rising within the group. “We have gotten empty promises before.”

The meeting with Guidice felt like another empty promise to McNamara, who said she had arranged the appointment in advance with a scheduler in the mayor’s office. The Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) did not respond to requests for comments by deadline. CDPH is a separate entity and works closely with OCEE on many environmental justice initiatives, but does not oversee OCEE or manage scheduling within other City departments or offices.

“I invited the mayor into my house,” she said. “I fed them in my house, and this is how I’m being treated.”

The young speakers, stifled by the noise of City Hall, gave an apt reflection of how South Side communities (including those in the Southwest and Southeast sides of the city) often feel their concerns go unheard. For years, environmental activists have been calling on the city to address the disproportionate amount of pollution found in neighborhoods near industrial corridors and bisected by major highways. Many of these communities are majority working-class residents and people of color. Many had turned to Mayor Brandon Johnson’s predecessor, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who never kept her promise to reinstate the city’s Department of Environment or address other environmental issues.

The battle against pollution is one that’s spanned generations. Some are disillusioned with the progress that’s been made. But others, like McNamara and Lozana, continue to fight ferociously for their community’s right to breathe clean air, regardless of who stands in their way.

A map of Chicago from 2020 depicting the city’s industrial corridor system. Most of the corridors and highways are in the South, Southwest and Southeast Sides in communities of color and in areas with the highest levels of air pollution in the city. (DEPARTMENT OF PLANNING AND DEVELOPMENT)

One Battle in a Larger War

On that same warm summer afternoon in August, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School students completed their first day of the school year while SEA and Healthy Hood went to City Hall to meet with Guidice.

The high school looks like any other private Catholic school but serves Spanish-speaking families with limited financial means through scholarship programs.

The school is about a two-minute drive from Sims Metal Midwest, a metal recycler located in the industrial corridor where the school is located, and the recycler is one of the latest industrial facilities in Pilsen to come under public scrutiny.

“They were polluting the environment by breaking all kinds of regulations,” said Gregory Galluzzo, former executive director of the Gamaliel Foundation and mentor to a young Barack Obama. But a fundamental, underlying problem is that city zoning targets most heavy industry for the industrial corridors.

Galluzo and his wife, Mary Gonzales, a legendary Pilsen environmental activist who has lived for decades in the community, don’t live directly within the neighborhood’s industrial corridor. However, people in Pilsen overall are still adversely impacted by the pollution and traffic it generates. The couple, both in their eighties, have lung problems they blame on the pollution from surrounding industries.

“It makes breathing harder,” Gonzales said. “It makes everything harder.”

Whittier Dual Language Magnet School seen on Aug. 17. Like Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, Whittier is only a few minutes away from industries such as Sims Metal Midwest and the industrial corridor it resides in. (LOUISE KIM/MEDILL REPORTS)

In November 2021, Sims Metal Midwest submitted its application for a large recycling facility (LRF) permit to the city. 

Just a month earlier, on October 22, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul had filed a lawsuit against Sims Metal Midwest, stating that it posed an environmental risk to surrounding neighborhoods. According to Raoul, the company failed to “demonstrate a minimum threshold reduction in uncontrolled emissions from the company’s metal shredding and recycling facilities.” 

The lawsuit triggered an investigation of the facility, and on April 21, 2022, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) issued a Clean Air Act information request to Sims Metal Midwest. The IEPA required Sims Metal to install air pollution monitors, which would measure real-time Particulate Matter with a diameter of 10 microns or less (PM10) and sample for Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAP) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC).

In an email, Sims Director of Operations George Malamis said that Sims Metal and the IEPA hired Trinity Consultants, a third-party provider, to conduct the air quality monitoring and sampling. The latest data can be found on EPA’s website. 

But, some residents remain suspicious of Sims Metal’s role in the data collection process.

“What does a company do that you hire?” Gonzales questioned. “They give you what you want?”

Sims Metal Midwest, a scrap metal recycling yard located on 2500 S. Paulina St. The facility is one of the latest to be targeted by environmental activists on the Southwest Side. (UNITED STATES ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY)

Fast forward to April 13, 2023, nearly a year later, the IEPA has deemed that Sims Metal Midwest does not pose a health risk to people in the short run. The IEPA is still analyzing long-term risks, and Malamis said the facility will continue to comply with data requests until an assessment is complete.

“We are in complete agreement that Pilsen residents deserve to breathe easy,” he said in an emailed statement. “We are a sustainable recycling business, stewards of natural resources, and protectors of our shared environment.”

But the struggle with Sims Metal is not an attempt to villainize one company as the sole polluter of the community, said multiple activists. It’s a single battle in the larger war against environmental injustice.

The anger aimed at Sims and other facilities is decades in the making. Zoning ordinances and land use policies have long targeted communities of color in the south, favoring industries over residents’ health, and the federal government has only recently cracked down on the city for discriminatory practices. HUD determined the zoning policies amount to a civil rights violation and called for reforms. The city has been developing an “environmental justice action plan” to avoid the potential sacrifice of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal block grants.  

“It’s not just Sims,” Galluzzo said, “It’s Sims combined with the truck diesels, combined with railroad yards, combined with expressways, combined with other polluters.”

Timeline of important events regarding Sims Metal Midwest:

The Bigger Picture

Jessica Guzlas always had a healthy lifestyle, so it surprised her when her doctor told her she had a rare form of cancer. 

Guzlas’ doctor, a gynecologic oncologist, asked her if she had a habit of smoking. She did not. A habit of drinking? Also no. Finally, her doctor asked where she lived. Guzlas said Douglas Park, a West Side neighborhood, is also part of an industrial corridor.  

“The doctor said all these women who live around Douglas Park are getting this type of cancer,” she said. Guzlas declined to specify the cancer type for personal reasons.

Guzlas is just one of many Chicagoans pointing to air pollution as the reason for their ailments. According to the city’s 2020 Air Quality and Health Report, 5% of premature deaths each year can be attributed to PM2.5, air pollutants in the form of particles people breathe. Exposure to particulate pollutants is also associated with an increased risk of respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. 

A map of Chicago depicting the communities most vulnerable to air pollution. Most of these communities are located on the South, West and Southwest Sides. (CITY OF CHICAGO)

Pollution hotspots in communities of color have become the poster child for environmental racism. These neighborhoods, already heavily industrialized and overburdened by pollution, have a history of fending off companies trying to relocate in their neighborhoods’ industrial corridors. This was most recently seen in the 2021 controversy surrounding another recycling center, the former General Iron company that closed operations in Lincoln Park after purchase by a scrap recycler on the Southeast Side. 

Low-income people of color don’t have the mobility to move to cleaner, more expensive parts of the city, so many residents feel stuck. Like Guzlas, they fear for their health and the health of their families.

For activists, taking down companies one by one isn’t enough. Polluters don’t exist in a vacuum, so even if a company like Sims Metal Midwest operates beneath a harmful threshold, it still contributes to overall pollution. Hundreds of facilities emitting at the minimum level could add to an overwhelming amount of pollution.

“Even if you’re just within the law just polluting a tiny, tiny bit, you’re adding to the accumulated impact,” Gonzales said.

Activists advocated for assessing the cumulative impacts of pollution, and they got it. As part of a settlement regarding the federal HUD investigation, CDPH has been working with community organizers to complete the Cumulative Impact Assessment (CIA). This citywide project gathered data on how environmental burdens vary across Chicago. 

The hope is that the CIA will shine a light on communities like Pilsen, Douglas Park, and Altgeld Gardens and spur Johnson’s administration to quick action.

But promises have been made by previous administrations. Some people’s faith in the city is beginning to waver.

Searching for a Reason to Hope

The CIA is a chance for the Johnson administration to solidify itself as a champion for environmental justice, especially if it follows through on its goal to work closely with activists living in environmental justice communities.

But broken campaign promises from past administrations have some people skeptical about what Johnson will accomplish these next few years. The tense Aug. 17 meeting at City Hall also left a sour taste in people’s mouths.

“I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt,” Theresa McNamara said. “I’ve been very patient with Mayor Brandon Johnson’s staff.”

On Sept. 15, a team of SEA leaders, including McNamara, met with Deputy Chief of Staff Cristina Pacione-Zayas and presented an environmental justice proposal drafted by different Southwest Side community organizations. They demanded an update from Mayor Brandon Johnson on campaign promises he made and asked for him to revisit their community.

This time, they were heard.

Mirroring his earlier visit, Mayor Brandon Johnson will visit Little Village to provide updates on various topics, including the revival of the Department of the Environment and the CIA. Currently, SEA is planning to hold the meeting in early November at the Arturo Velasquez Westside Technical Institute.

For now, only time will tell what promises are kept.

Cover Photo: Activists from Chicago’s South and West Sides gathered at City Hall to remind Mayor Brandon Johnson of what he promised when it comes to environmental justice. To the group’s dismay, their demonstration was confined to the busy first floor. (Provided by Theresa McNamara)

Louise Kim is a reporter and graduate student from the Medill School of Journalism. Originally from Southern California, Louise moved to Chicago and is now covering environmental issues in the Midwest and beyond.

IL Latino News partners with Medill School of Journalism in providing students mentoring and real work experiences.

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