‘Coal for diesel’: Redevelopment menaces Chicago neighbourhood

Destruction of old coal-fired power plant to make way for e-commerce distribution hub promises more air pollution.

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Diesel fumes and dust blanket Chicago's Little Village, a largely minority neighbourhood dotted with distribution centres that hundreds of freight trucks a day access to serve the city and surrounding suburbs [File: Anne Bouleanu/Al Jazeera]

Chicago, United States – Victories are rare for community activists in Little Village, a low-income, largely minority neighbourhood on Chicago’s west side. But seven years ago, activists scored an epic victory by managing to shut down the Crawford Generating Station – a coal-fired power plant that had spewed hazardous toxins and pollutants into the community for decades.

The hope was that the shuttered coal plant would be converted into a park or a public space that residents could use. Instead, Hilco Redevelopment Partners, an industrial real estate development company, is tearing it down to make way for a yet another e-commerce distribution centre that promises to draw fleets of 18-wheeler trucks to an area already inundated with pollution

“They’re here to make a buck,” Edith Tovar, a community organiser with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), told Al Jazeera. “The lives of black and brown people and indigenous people are not as valued as the lives of people who are not people of colour, and it shows.”

Diesel fumes and dust blanket Little Village, an industrial corridor with a largely Latinx population. The neighbourhood is adjacent to Interstate 55, a major highway that provides hundreds of freight trucks with daily access to distribution centres in Little Village that serve the city and surrounding suburbs.

Two-storey brick homes with neatly trimmed lawns sit across the street from the decommissioned Crawford plant – one of more than a dozen industrial sites located throughout the area.

Two elementary schools are located just two blocks from multiple industrial sites – a plastic fabrication company, a distribution warehouse, a steel company and an asphalt plant.

They are part of the landscape of commercial facilities, including an Amazon delivery station, that dot Little Village and the larger west and south sides of Chicago. 

“We’re trading coal for diesel,” said Tovar. 

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Hilco Redevelopment Partners is tearing down the now-shuttered Crawford coal-fired power plant and plans to replace it with an e-commerce distribution centre that residents fear will bring more pollution to Chicago’s Little Village [File: Anne Bouleanu/Al Jazeera]

Health concerns

Monica, 41, has lived in Little Village for 20 years with her three children, now ages 20, 18 and 14. She asked Al Jazeera to withhold her surname to protect her privacy.

“My children wake up with stuffy noses already because of the dust that enters our homes,” she said. “If this company is going to bring more diesel trucks, that means more respiratory problems.”

Even the redevelopment process is raising health concerns among residents. Hilco is not required to test air quality as it tears down the old coal-fired plant.

At a community meeting in August, concerned residents asked city officials what they were doing to protect the neighbourhood from the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), metals and other contaminants found at the redevelopment site. Potential long-term health effects of PAH exposure include jaundice, cataracts, kidney and liver damage, while exposure to dangerous metals can lead to respiratory illness and, in cases of exposure to concentrated doses, can cause cognitive impairments.

When Chicago Department of Public Health assistant commissioner David Graham advised residents to “limit outdoor activity” during the demolition and construction process, the suggestion elicited outrage. 

Raymond Lodato, an assistant instructional professor with the Program on the Global Environment at the University of Chicago, told Al Jazeera that the comment was clearly a gaffe, but not surprising.

“If they blurt out something like that, they haven’t thought about it at all,” Lodato said. “It’s amazing what people will say when they don’t think they’re going to be accountable for it.”

Demolition and construction at the Crawford site are expected to stretch into March 2020. 

In response to community concerns, the Chicago Department of Public Health said they would begin weekly inspections at the site, but Tovar said she has yet to see regular inspections take place. 

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Edith Tovar of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) says that with the distribution centre going up, the city is ‘trading coal for diesel’, and Little Village residents will face more health problems [File: Anne Bouleanu/Al Jazeera]

Dirty business

Pollution disproportionately affects communities of colour across the United States.

A University of Minnesota study found that on average, black and Hispanic communities are exposed to far more air pollution than they generate, while white communities are exposed to less air pollution than they create, giving them a “pollution advantage” over minorities. 

“Anytime there’s an environmentally damaging project, it’s in a community of people of colour,” said Lodato. “First we devalue their properties, and then we devalue the people who live there.”

Globally, some seven million people die from air pollution-related illnesses each year, according to the World Health Organization, with more than 90 percent of deaths concentrated in low- and middle-income countries, largely in Africa and Asia.

Over the years, developers and industrial companies have come and gone from Chicago’s minority neighbourhoods.

Companies move from the suburbs and white neighbourhoods into the industrial corridors largely populated by people of colour. In September, scrap metal company General Iron was approved to move from a largely white neighbourhood on the north side of the city to a predominantly black neighbourhood on the south side.

“They’ve left their legacy of dirty industry,” said Tovar. “We want to highlight how the west side and south side of Chicago are being affected by these large-scale companies that are only here to do dirty business.”

Despite pushback from Little Village locals, who held community meetings and news conferences to express their opposition to the project, the City of Chicago approved the $100m, one-million-square-foot (92,903-square-metre) development in 2018. 

The city also granted Hilco a 12-year, $19.7m tax break earlier this year, citing the economic benefits the new distribution centre could provide.

Hilco projects their new development site will create 365 construction jobs and 180 permanent jobs.

“The jobs argument is often used as a cudgel to overcome resistance from the neighbourhood,” said Lodato. “The question is always who’s going to get the jobs. Will it be poor people in the area, or will it be people from outside the neighbourhood?”

Ana, 39, owns a convenience store in Little Village, just a few blocks away from the development site. A long-time resident of the neighbourhood, she asked Al Jazeera to withhold her surname to protect her privacy. 

“Jobs are jobs, but they’ll be temporary,” she said. “But the chaos of continued contamination will always be here.”

Monica says she can see the effects of pollution and poor air quality not just in the health of her children, but in her physical environment.

“Even if you clean in the morning, that night there’s a line of dust on the furniture,” she says. “That dust has to be coming from somewhere.”

Source: Al Jazeera