Hunger strikers in pursuit of environmental justice win air pollution delay
As Yesenia Chavez was growing up in Southeast Chicago, it seemed like everyone had asthma. Her mother and sister had the disease, as did many of her classmates. Sometimes she felt left out because she didn’t have an inhaler. Now, as an adult living here, she may have dodged asthma, but this predominantly Latino working class area is home to more than 50 current and former industrial sites. And some of them having emitted the type of air pollution that research has linked to environmental health issues such as asthma and others that are prevalent in the community of Chavez.
Last month she joined others activists on a 28-day hunger strike to protest an Ohio and Chicago-based firm’s plan to move a metal demolition facility from an affluent white neighborhood to the north side of town (where it recently closed) to the southeast side. Hundreds of other supporters took part in 24-hour sympathy strikes before the month-long one ended on March 4. known as PM2.5, and the coarser ones with a diameter of 10 microns or less, known as PM10. Hunger strikers, as well as several community organizations, say they are tired of the polluting industries that use their homes as a dumping ground.
Reserve Management Group (RMG) is the parent company of the old facility on the north side and four existing recycling operations on the south-east side. RMG spokesperson Randall Samborn said the future facility will be equipped with the latest air pollution controls.
The tension over inequalities and the establishment of polluting industries has grown in communities nationwide, such as The San Joaquin Valley in California and areas in Louisiana and New Jersey. And the conflict came to a head just as President Joe Biden enacted a $ 1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief stimulus package – which includes $ 100 million intended for grants and programs to help minority and low-income communities cope with the disproportionate burden of air pollution and other environmental health risks.
It is not known whether residents of the Southeast Side will be able to permanently prevent another metal scrapping facility from operating in their community. But earlier this month, the city government delayed a permit for the new Southeast Side plant and took action that could force metal recyclers to submit stronger environmental impact assessments and hold a community meeting.
Particulate pollution can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause disease. Decades of research have linked air pollution to cardiovascular and respiratory illness and premature death. Air pollution may even contribute to a higher risk of contracting and dying from infectious diseases such as SARS – and the disease that is causing our current pandemic –several studies suggest now. Pollution from multiple sources can combine with other social disparities, including limited access to stores that sell healthy food, to impose heavier health burdens on already vulnerable populations.
In Chicago, black and Latino children have much higher asthma rates than white children (the rates for black children are much higher). And blacks and Latinos, as well as those living in poor communities, are disproportionately exposed to fine particles on average, compared to whites and residents of wealthier communities, according to the 2019 findings of biosystems engineer Jason Hill of the University of Minnesota and his colleagues.
Chicago has a history of housing discrimination and remains racially segregated, and the city’s health disparities are stark. “You have this compounded problem of historic racism in redlining… but the problem is compounded by the economic disadvantage that non-white populations have also suffered,” Hill said. Between 2016 and 2018 adult asthma rate on the southeast side were between 15 and 20 percent, compared to 9% citywide in 2018, according to the Chicago Health Atlas. Last year a Air quality and health report released by the city revealed that the southeastern community was one of the most vulnerable to the health effects of air pollution.
In 2018, Yukyan Lam, public health scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, mapped the cumulative health effects of environmental pollution in Chicago, including particulate air pollution from diesel trucks and other sources. The results correlate with redlining maps (which were used in the city and across the country to enforce racial discrimination in mortgage lending in the 1930s) and with recent disparities in mortgage lending. Deaths due to COVID-19 and access to vaccines.
Grace Tee Lewis, a health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said municipalities should consider this mapping data when assessing whether to allow an industrial facility to operate in a community. “You can look at the particular pollutants that are emitted from certain types of facilities that you’ve mapped – getting back to that cumulative burden on riparian communities,” says Tee Lewis. “I think these types of factors need to be taken into account in risk assessments in general and certainly need to be taken into account in the placement of industrial facilities.”
When the metal scrapping facility was operating in a neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, it contributed to air pollution by emitting particulate pollution, truck traffic exhaust and organic compounds. volatiles (VOCs), explains Serap Erdal, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. and occupational health scientist, who studied the air emissions in this neighborhood in 2016.
A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigation determined that emissions of particulate matter and hazardous air pollutants from the now closed North Side operation were below acceptable limits, but that VOC emissions have exceeded them. Under a subsequent federal consent agreement, the facility said it would implement better air pollution controls.
The installation plan for the south-east side is gone protests when it was announced in July 2018. At the end of January 2020, the EPA confirmed that it was investigating the civil rights violation decision, but a month later, it filed the investigation. In a statement to American scientist, an EPA spokesperson said that the Biden-Harris administration is committed to environmental justice and “renewed our commitment to address and address the challenges of environmental justice through the consultation and engagement with overburdened communities ”. On February 10, after a week of hunger strike, Susan Sadlowski Garza, a member of the city council representing the people of the Southeast Side, Chicago asked to delay a permit for the new plant. Later in the month, Democratic Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, both of Illinois, as well as two of the state’s congressional representatives, called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate air pollution around two of RMG’s existing facilities on the southeast side.
Last week the city deferred RMG’s permit for the new facility on the south-east side, asking the company for more information on the potential impact of all of its operations in the region. Earlier the same day, a city zoning committee took action to require metal recyclers and other industries to submit traffic and air quality impact assessments and hold a meeting. community to discuss their plans. “It’s a step in the right direction,” Sadlowski Garza said at the zoning committee meeting. But Byron Sigcho-Lopez, a city council member who joined the hunger strikers, voted against the measure and said the city needs to do more to include community members in the site’s approval process to potentially polluting industries.
The entire city council passed the zoning measure on Wednesday over objections from some progressive council members, who said it did not go far enough to curb polluters and noted that no environmental justice group did not support her. *
Chavez sees progress in the health of his community, even though Chicago eventually clears the new scrap plant. “The city says: ‘All their equipment is up to standard; that’s what’s okay if you’re going to pollute a neighborhood, ”she said. “We have [many] other businesses in our neighborhood that are not up to standard. Let us bring them up to standard in order to reduce emissions. The data is there. The hunger is there, and the patience and the need for change is certainly there too. “
*Editor’s Note (3/24/21): This sentence was added after posting to update the status of the zoning measure.