Neighbors For Environmental Justice Fight for Clean Air in McKinley Park

Neighbors For Environmental Justice (N4EJ) formed in 2018 as a reaction to a newly constructed asphalt plant operating in McKinley Park without community input or knowledge.

Mckenzie Richmond

Tuesday, March 8, 2022, 3:44 PM

Neighbors For Environmental Justice (N4EJ)—one of Chicago’s newest grassroots organizations—formed in 2018 as a reaction to a newly constructed asphalt plant operating in McKinley Park without community input or knowledge. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) approved a construction permit that authorized the new development, MAT Asphalt, to operate for one year from the date of startup: July 2, 2018.

However, IEPA allowed them to keep operating while they were considered for a long-term permit – despite the evident health risks to the community during COVID-19 and clear documentation of odor nuisance and visible emissions during their 12-month permit period.

In early 2019, the application for a long-term permit was rejected due to failure to include a complete list of their sources of pollution and noted that plant operators had installed additional equipment without seeking additional permits from the city. If properly reported, the plant would qualify as a major source of pollution, requiring it to be regulated by the federal EPA.

Alfredo Romo, executive director of N4EJ and long-time McKinley Park resident, recently stated that the company violated environmental rules and took advantage of outdated zoning laws by constructing this development in a residential area.

“You see all these loopholes and ways that they can actually facilitate their ability to construct, but when it comes to [N4EJ] we have gone through every single layer—state, city, federal—to make the case that they should be shut down and relocated, but every time you put them in this box, they always find ways,” Romo said.

Romo has seen first-hand how these large pollutant companies cheat environmental laws and regulations in Chicago. In the midst of his former employment with an Illinois chemical company, Romo was diagnosed with a rare form for cancer and given 6 months to live, while undergoing invasive operations and aggressive treatments, Romo said McKinley Park “became like [his] third lung in [his] remission.”

“I remember, perhaps it was late February early March, that was part of my daily routine to just get out there and walk,” Romo said. “And when I came around the corner of Damen I saw these silos that weren't there before. The first thing that came to my head was ‘what the hell is this?’”

As satellite images show, the plant is less than 1000 ft from schools and homes, impacting 100’s of locals with the foul odors, giant plumes of smoke, and the constant flow of trucks through neighborhood streets, yet locals there were concerned that there was no apparent public notice from any elected official, Illinois EPA or the Chicago Department of Public Health prior to construction.

According to Romo, residents have filed over 375 complaints and reports to the Chicago Department of Public Health and the IEPA for air pollution, failure to control windborne material, and operating equipment without a permit.

A complaint filed against MAT Asphalt by the National Latino Education Institute in 2019 read:

“The fumes emitting from the asphalt plant have been extraordinarily strong today. It was difficult for me to walk from my car to inside our building without being physically affected by those fumes. I also learned later that my maintenance team had no choice, but to turn off the air conditioning system, because the fumes from the outside were so strong that they were affecting students and those inside the building.”

However, IEPA investigators have dismissed previous complaints as being “filed for fun.” The IEPA has also responded to past complaints by calling MAT Asphalt to find out if their recorded production levels were below permit limits, and if they were, they close the investigation.

The US EPA has an Environmental Justice screening and mapping tool, the EJSCREEN, which provides EPA with a nationally consistent dataset and approach for combining environmental and demographic indicators. The EJSCREEN includes 11 environmental based data indicators and 6 demographic based data indicators.

The environmental indicators include, but are not limited to: traffic proximity and volume, proximity to potential chemical accident management sites, proximity to hazardous waste facilities, air toxics respiratory hazard index and lifetime cancer risk from inhalation of air toxics.

According to Romo, the McKinley Park community ranks in the 80 to 90 percentiles in these categories, yet the plant continues to operate.

“I just couldn’t walk away knowing these kids were going to be exposed to these toxic elements, at that point it was like who was going to advocate for them?” Romo said.

Concerned community residents, like Romo, challenged the proximity of the plant to McKinley Park, residential homes and schools and held community conversations to understand how such a heavy development was allowed to be constructed without notification or any community input.

“We only had two options. As a community, do we accept this and let it be or do we organize and reject this. And we went with the second option.”

Romo helped establish N4EJ in 2018 to embrace community input and involvement; build a green, healthy and sustainable community and environment; hold elected officials accountable for harmful pollution in the area; and promote community action to achieve environmental health and justice on the southwest side of Chicago.

MAT Asphalt is their primary campaign, however they have other campaigns in motion in regards to air pollution and systematic issues, such as environmental racism.

“Much of our work is around development now, and implementation and enforcement,” Romo said. In addition to that, one of the things we do a lot is monitor, we report and document to make a case that this thing cannot co-exist with our community.”

The group hopes to bring attention to the underlying conditions that produce situations such as these including environmental racism, corruption in the government, and “a widespread political belief that industry is more important than the health of marginalized people,” according to N4EJ.

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About the Author

Mckenzie Richmond

Mckenzie Richmond is a current Northwestern Medill Graduate Student specializing in social justice and sports media with an established background in journalism as a reporter and photographer. Learn more: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mckenzie-richmond/


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