CHICAGO — Twenty days into her hunger strike, Yesenia Chavez took a long look in the mirror.
Her skin was pale. Her brown eyes seemed blank. Her weight had dropped by 17 pounds and she thought she could see her bones. “I looked pretty sick,” she said.
Chavez and other activists were trying to stop a large metal scrapyard with a poor environmental record from starting up in their Mexican American community on Chicago’s Southeast Side. They feared noxious gases and toxic fiberglass fluff from the car-crushing facility would increase Hegewisch’s already significant air pollution.
What made the situation especially audacious, in their view, was that the business had relocated from a wealthy White community on the North Side, where residents pushed for years to get rid of it. The scrapyard’s departure from Lincoln Park is paving the way for a $6 billion development of new shops, restaurants, office buildings, luxury condominiums, playgrounds and scenic views of the Chicago River.
“It’s about the fact that you can take something from a community where it’s not wanted, for all the reasons it’s not wanted there, and build [it] here,” said Peggy Salazar, who has lived in Hegewisch for nearly four decades. “We don’t have a voice about that, but they do. That’s why it’s insulting … and that’s why we’re opposed to it.”
Black, Latino and American Indian communities across the country continue to feel targeted and expected to carry a heavier burden no matter the consequences. In North Charleston, S.C., hundreds of people in a mostly Black community could lose their homes if a freeway interchange is expanded. In Dallas, a mountain of toxic waste rose illegally on the edge of a Black neighborhood and took extraordinary pressure to get removed.
Then there’s Chicago, which has one of the biggest disparities in neighborhood life expectancy in the United States.
“The city of Chicago has long used the Southeast Side and other lower-income communities of color … as dumping grounds for heavy and dirty industries,” said Nancy Loeb, director of Northwestern University’s Environmental Advocacy Center. Locals even have a label for their situation: “Receiving zones for industries no longer welcome in wealthier, whiter areas.”
But the fight in Hegewisch has played out differently than most previous battles. Though Reserve Management Group is ready to switch on its new $80 million Southside Recycling facility — built within close proximity to high school, elementary school and sprawling playground — residents’ opposition has helped to delay its final permits.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D), who must decide whether to approve or refuse those permits, is caught in a maelstrom of politics, lawsuits and federal investigations. The Department of Housing and Urban Development launched a civil rights probe last fall into the city’s preliminary approval of construction permits for the scrapyard, and this spring the Environmental Protection Agency asked local officials to do a comprehensive study of its “aggregate potential health effects.” Both are still pending.
For many in the community, the relocated operation became their figurative line in the sand. It brought together older activists like Salazar and younger ones like Chavez, who were willing to risk their health for the cause. Their hungry strike drew global media attention and a visit from EPA Administrator Michael Regan.
Chavez joined the strike in part for personal reasons. She thought of her maternal grandfather, who encountered pollution on the Southeast Side when he immigrated from Mexico, and her mother, who was raised around it.
As a girl, she marveled at how the North Side, with its running trails along the Chicago River and views of the city skyline from Lake Michigan’s shoreline, contrasted with Southeast’s polluted Calumet River. An area known as the Calumet Industrial Corridor includes at least 80 heavy manufacturing sites — chemical factories, plastics manufacturers, paint companies, landfills, recycling and waste management plants, railways.
Protesters engaged with passion and zeal. Even when a medical team advised hunger strikers to quit as their action entered a fifth week, Chavez voted to press on.
“I was at peace,” the 27-year-old pre-med student said, “with potentially dying for this.”
‘Fugitive dust’ in homes
There’s a place on the Southeast Side’s shore where Olga Bautista can almost forget about the factories.
She hopped in her SUV on a warm day and drove east on South Avenue O to Calumet Park, an expansive recreation area along Lake Michigan. The wind played in her hair as she stood near the water’s edge. But even this oasis is no longer untouched. A grainy black substance darkened the waves licking the shore. It left thin rows of residue on the wet sand.
Bautista studied the substance, then looked toward the mills, warehouses and smokestacks in the distance. A worried look flashed across her face. Her young daughter was in the water taking a swimming lesson.
For more than a century, this section of the city was home to the powerful but dirty steel mills that helped build America. As U.S. Steel and other industry titans faded away in the early 1990s, residents hoped the pollution they had endured would also fade. Yet officials simply allowed in more industry, even as scientific evidence of the negative health effects became clear.
Two years ago, a New York University study showed the long-term repercussions. The analysis examined air quality, exposure to toxic pollution and access to healthy food by census tracts, as well as race, income and unemployment. Researchers found a 30-year gap in life expectancy between two neighborhoods on Chicago’s North and South sides — the largest disparity of the country’s 500 biggest cities.
When Salazar moved to Southeast in 1983, into a little house with a manicured yard, she knew bulk open-air storage facilities were only a few blocks away. “I didn’t think they would impact me.”
She was wrong.
Over time, she realized the wind was lifting hazardous material off giant piles at warehouses and sprinkling it on her neighborhood like powdered sugar on a cake. One day, a neighbor marveled at the dark, rich dirt that clung to a rag whenever she dusted.
“It’s not dirt,” Salazar said. “It’s fugitive dust that’s getting into your house.”
As her concerns about pollution grew, Salazar joined what became the Southeast Environmental Task Force and entered its war against city planning and zoning officials. She fought a proposed coal gasification plant, landfills expansions and more petroleum coke facilities.
“I had hoped to bring about some transitioning into a greener kind of community, but it’s a big lift,” Salazar, 68, said recently. After serving as the task force’s executive director for about a decade, she stepped down in July. “I thought once the steel mills closed we could make it cleaner, and it didn’t happen. All they did was bring us dirty industry to replace that one.”
Bautista, 42, will lead the charge moving forward.
She dreams of bringing green manufacturers into Hegewisch, as happened seven miles away in the Pullman community, where the Method soap company is going strong with wind turbines, solar panels and a 75,000-foot green roof with pesticide-free vegetable garden. The city, she believes, must finally honor its past promises to clean up Southeast.
“My fight is not with General Iron,” said Bautista, who worked with other activists and lawyers at the Greater Chicago Legal Clinic to file the complaint that triggered HUD’s investigation. “My fight is with the city of Chicago. They’ve said a lot of wonderful, beautiful things about what they prioritize, and I want to see that.”
$80 million sitting idle
How did a scrapyard with a problematic environmental record — constant noise violations, multiple fires, even explosions — get the permits allowing it to shift to another part of Chicago?
General Iron Industries operated nearly a century in Lincoln Park, taking the rebar, typewriters, washing machines, cars, scooters and other scrap metal that junkmen had collected from alleys or demolition companies. It transformed that into raw, usable steel.
But the more affluent its surroundings became, the more the scrapyard stood out. By 2017, its owners were under siege.
Steve Joseph watched its last days. Joseph, chief executive of Reserve Management Group, aspired to expand his company’s recycling compound near Hegewisch and coveted General Iron.
Given its troubles, Joseph said in an interview, he figured the owners might sell at a lower price. As RMG bartered for the scrapyard, it also negotiated with then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel to close the Lincoln Park operation and build a new one to the south.
“They didn’t tell us to put it here,” Joseph said, “but we asked them, ‘If we put it here, will you work with us?’ and the answer was yes.”
The two companies publicly unveiled their new partnership in July 2018 and simultaneously announced that the “recycling center” would be relocated. The new facility, they noted, would “revitalize the Calumet Region with jobs and business opportunities while improving the environmental health and safety of the region and showcasing sustainable development.”
Hegewisch erupted. People demanded that their representative on the city council, Alderwoman Susan Garza (D), stop the move.
Even Lincoln Park residents who pushed for General Iron’s exit were flabbergasted.
“Our motto was comply or goodbye,” said Lara Compton, one of the leaders of the North Side environmental group Clean the North Branch. “We felt strongly … that if General Iron couldn’t comply on the North Side, then it wouldn’t be able to comply anywhere in the city.”
For more than two years, the RMG/General Iron venture seemed on track, despite Emanuel’s announcement in September 2018 that he would not seek reelection. The permit process continued amid protests, and in early 2019, the new venture won local approval to use equipment for a new shredder on the South Side.
Lightfoot became Chicago’s first female African American mayor that spring. Several months after she took office — after campaigning as an environment-friendly candidate — the city entered into an agreement with RMG that cleared the way for the shredder’s relocation.
As of last fall, her administration was still supporting RMG. A city lawyer even chided protesters as needlessly reactionary, saying their concerns were unwarranted because the new facility was technologically advanced and safer than the old one.
Yet the circumstances under which the city granted the permits under both Emanuel and Lightfoot were so questionable that HUD launched a probe focused on possible violations of the federal Fair Housing Act. This January, the federal EPA began an investigation of the state environmental agency’s separate approval of a construction permit.
The $80 million structure continues to sit idle. Lightfoot declined to be interviewed for this article but said in a statement that her administration is committed to spurring both economic growth and improving air quality.
After the EPA administrator’s visit in May — when Regan asked Lightfoot to delay her final review, citing the “environmental justice implications” — RMG filed two lawsuits in federal and state courts for $100 million in damages.
A federal judge threw out the case. A state judge allowed the company to continue seeking monetary damages with its claim that the city’s action posed “an existential threat to RMG’s existence, and its employees,” not just in Chicago but nationwide.
“We never would have closed this purchase and never done this deal and never spent a dime on it if we didn’t have that agreement with the city that took sometime over a year to negotiate,” Joseph said. He believes the EPA also hurt his business when it requested the environmental analysis.
“It’s a wish of the Biden administration to change environmental policy, and I’m all for that,” he said. “But he can’t change the rules of the game after the game has been played.”
‘We thought we would die’
For the hunger strikers, it was no game.
Óscar Sanchez, who directs youth and restorative justice programs for a local nonprofit, was livid over the scrap shredder’s arrival in his community. Biology teacher Chuck Stark was angry because it sat across the street from his students at George Washington High School.
Both Sanchez, 24, and Stark, 37, were among the first volunteers when discussions about a hunger strike began. Sanchez stepped forward in memory of his grandfather, who suffered from a respiratory illness that contributed to his death from covid last year, and for a brother who has asthma.
His agony started within days, he recalled. He had migraines and lagging energy. He was so hungry that at times “it felt like my stomach was trying to eat itself.”
After about two weeks, he wasn’t just losing weight. He was losing short-term memory. When a wheel on his car went bad, he asked his father to help repair it. The next day, he asked again. “My dad’s like, ‘We fixed the car yesterday,’ ” Sanchez said. “That’s when I started crying.”
Chavez became part of the strike a week after it began. By her third week, she was drained and depressed and periodically felt faint. Still, she vowed not to quit.
“Should I have to face the same pollution that my mom and my grandfather had to deal with in the ’70s?” Chavez asked. “Will my kids have to face that same pollution?”
The group put out a call to all of the Southeast to join the fast. Democratic Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 38, who represents a district on the South Side, signed on. He later explained that he had wanted to bring attention to the lasting effects on health “when industry gets dumped in our communities.” He described the 10 days he went without food as “difficult and excruciating.”
The effort lasted about a month, finally ending in March when that medical team convinced participants that they were putting themselves in danger. They fell short of their prime objective: a meeting with Lightfoot. “We literally thought we would die before the mayor would do anything,” Chavez said.
They now must wait for the completion of the city’s environmental study and then Lightfoot’s decision. Sanchez is sure other companies in Chicago also are waiting, “to see what they can and can’t get away with.”
If the scrapyard facility gets final approval, it would be a gut punch for the community. But people are prepared to hit back, he explained.
“We’re going to fight,” he said. “We have nothing else to lose.”