Chicago, The Toxic City?

By Patrick Smith

Chicagoland is the third most toxic metropolitan area in the United States, according to a recent study.

Chicago has also had the most Environmental Protection Agency responses to complaints, and it has the most facilities releasing toxic chemicals in the nation.

Last week, released the results of a study titled “America’s Most Toxic Cities.” Forbes listed Atlanta as the nation’s most toxic, Detroit as the second most Chicago is tied with Houston for third worst in the country.

Dorian Breuer, a member of the Pilsen Environmenal Rights and Reform Organization, said he was not surprised that Chicago was ranked so high in toxicity.

Little Village Environmental Justice Organization Coordinator Kimberley Wasserman echoed Dorian’s sentiment.

“It definitely wasn’t a surprise,” Wasserman said. “I think what was more surprising was that somebody actually publicized it.”

Forbes used the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory of about 650 chemicals that manufacturing, mining, electric utilities and hazardous waste treatment release into the air, and the EPA’s air quality index was the basis for its study.

The rankings were based on the number of facilities releasing toxins in an area, the number of days per year a city’s air pollution was above healthy levels, the number of times the EPA has responded to complaints and the total amount, in pounds, of toxic releases.

Chicago also ranked second worst in terms of air quality, making it the only metro area ranked in the top five for toxicity and poor air quality.

According to an EPA study assessing the dangers of air quality made public on the Chicago Tribune’s Web site in September, Cook County ranks worst in the nation for dangerous air pollution.

Industry leaders don’t think the ranking accurately reflects the progress the area has made in air quality and pollution. However, environmental activists don’t think the study goes far enough in its condemnation and the EPA said that the study’s author used “the info in a not very scientific way.”

While EPA Press Officer Latisha Petteway said that the data used in Forbes’ study are pretty accurate, she stressed that the EPA had not participated in the study, and that the rankings are only based on data available on the agency’s Web site. And her fellow Press Officer Karen Thompson questioned Forbes’ methodology.

“We had nothing to do with this study,” Thompson said. “It’s our data, but you can take data and interpret it any way you want. I don’t know how they came to their conclusions.”

According to Breuer, the data Forbes used does not give an accurate on-the-ground picture of the pollution problems in Chicago.

“The majority of air pollution comes from cars, trucks, semis and diesel construction equipment,” Breuer said. “Where’s the transportation data [in this study]?”

Chicago has the third most traffic congestion in the nation, according to a February study by INRIX, a company that provides real-time, historical and predictive traffic information.

But Charlie Parnell, a spokesman for Midwest Generation, a company that owns and operates two power plants in Chicago and four more in Illinois, said that the ranking paints a negative picture that Chicago doesn’t deserve.

“In the Chicagoland region, our air quality is getting better and better every year,” Parnell said. “I think it’s often overlooked that our air is cleaner today than it was 15, 20 years ago. And every year there are new regulations put in place to further improve air quality.”

Breuer and Wasserman said that even if air quality has improved, it is still at unacceptable levels.

The two power plants Midwest owns in Chicago, the Fisk Generating Station, 1111 W. Cermak Road, the Crawford Generating Station, 3501 S. Pulaski Road are two of the city’s largest polluters, according to Breuer.

But according to Parnell, the pollutants those two plants emit are not classified by the EPA as toxic and did not contribute to Chicago’s poor ranking.

“We are not a significant contributor to those toxic emissions,” Parnell said. “Our criteria pollutants, which are nitrous dioxin emissions and sulfur dioxin emissions as well as mercury … are not classified in this toxic category.”

However, at the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory Web site, both Crawford and Fisk are listed as emitters of toxic chemicals. Along with dioxin and dioxin-like compounds and mercury, which are included in the Toxic Release Inventory, Fisk and Crawford also release the toxic chemicals barium, copper, hydrochloric acid, hydrogen fluoride, lead compounds, manganese compounds, vanadium compounds and zinc compounds.

Breuer said that the Forbes list represents a schizophrenia that the national media has about Chicago’s environmental status because in other national publications, Mayor Richard M. Daley has been praised for being a “green mayor.” There should be no question of what the truth is about Chicago’s environmental record, according to Breuer.

“We give him an F,” Breuer said. “There might be a few green roofs and there might be some really nice plants on some streets in Chicago, but when you look at the real substance, stuff that’s killing people every year … he’s done nothing.”

Media relations for the city’s department of environment did not respond to interview requests.

Alderman Joe Moore (49th Ward) has proposed an ordinance to regulate Chicago’s coal-burning power plants like Crawford and Fisk. Breuer said that the ordinance could go a long way in making Chicago a cleaner and healthier place.