Toxic lead probe under way in Pilsen

By The Columbia Chronicle

By Vanessa Morton, Contributing Writer

Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Village communities, which have struggled for years to build concrete evidence that verifies harmful levels of air pollution, may have finally gotten the proof they’ve been looking for.

New air monitoring data released by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency in March showed high levels of toxic lead that polluted the air throughout 2010 outside Pilsen’s Perez Elementary School, 1241 W. 19th St. In response to requests from the communities and residents at risk because of the high lead levels, a joint

investigation was launched by the U.S and Illinois EPA in March.

The agencies will continue to evaluate the air monitor posted on the roof of Perez Elementary and another at nearby Juarez Community Academy, 2150 South Laflin St., in attempt to locate the high lead concentration’s source.

“We’re really glad community members are now able to prove that the pollution is worse than we originally thought,” said Kimberly Wasserman Nieto, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. “The people in this neighborhood are tasting and smelling [lead] in the air and know there is something wrong.”

According to an EPA Ambient Monitoring Data sheet collected during a three-month period in 2010, the average lead levels at Perez Elementary School were either at or above .15 micrograms per cubic meter of air, the safety limit set by the U.S government.

“This has been an issue for both neighborhoods for a very long time,” Nieto said. “Our concern, overall, is the people in our community and what it is they are dealing with on a daily basis. In regards to not having access to clean air, unfortunately, part of the problem is bureaucracy and part of the problem is politics.”

Although the source of the high lead concentration isn’t determined yet, both Pilsen schools are located within two miles of two of the most notorious air polluters in Chicago—the H. Kramer and Co. smelter, 1345 W. 21st St., and the Fisk coal-fired power plant, 1111 W. Cermak Road.

Aware of the recent reports regarding air quality in the Pilsen community, the city’s public school district announced its cooperation with the agencies. While the EPA is responsible for monitoring the outside air quality, the district found no signs of any problems with the indoor air quality at Perez or Juarez schools.

“As a precaution, air quality sampling was conducted during the weekend at Perez and Juarez schools,” said Frank Shuftan, Chicago Public Schools’ communications officer. “All samples have been analyzed, and there were no detectable levels of lead found at either school.”

However, according to Maggie Carson, Illinois EPA director, finding the source of the high lead concentration will be a complicated process. Carson said they have to

scientifically analyze all the probable emitters in the surrounding areas, and monitor the weather conditions that could possibly affect the trajectory of the pollutant from its possible sources.

“This is an ongoing process because we know there are several potential sources in the area,” Carson said. “However, we’re trying to move quickly because of the area this is in, because there are schools and children involved.”

But local activist Jerry Mead-Lucero, founding member of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, objects to the IEPA’s time frame. Though Mead-Lucero supports a thorough IEPA investigation, he said the organization tends to act slowly unless a strong citizen participation effort is present to monitor the situation.

“We’re encouraging them to really try and track down those sources to try and figure out what needs to be done to clean them up,” Mead-Lucero said. “But we’re also thinking they need to rethink how they deal with this problem because they do allow these properties to put a certain amount of lead in the air regardless.”

Nieto agrees with Mead-Lucero and thinks IEPA is slow to take action. However, she thinks individuals from the communities are responsible for getting involved when it comes to environmental issues.

“We’ve been harping on the IEPA for eight years,” Nieto said. “We’ve been able to move the federal government and have been trying to move our local government. There has been progression but through a very slow process. Really, the commitment comes from community people who stuck it out for eight years.”