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Grassroots environmental victory in Chicago: ‘No dumps, no deals, again!’

by Beatrice Lumpkin/People's Weekly World Saturday, Apr. 16, 2005 at 11:31 AM

WELCOME TO CHICAGO, the sign says, as you cruise northwestward on I-94. “Close the windows!” I yelled to my kids. Never mind the day was hot and the car’s air conditioning was not working. The stench from the garbage dumps was making my stomach turn. I felt I had to vomit. That would be inconvenient, to say the least, because I was driving.

WELCOME TO CHICAGO, the sign says, as you cruise northwestward on I-94. “Close the windows!” I yelled to my kids. Never mind the day was hot and the car’s air conditioning was not working. The stench from the garbage dumps was making my stomach turn.

I felt I had to vomit. That would be inconvenient, to say the least, because I was driving.

On the right side of the road, mountains of garbage hid the view of beautiful Lake Calumet. Just a few blocks further east, Com Ed’s coal-fired power plant was coughing up puffs of smoke full of soot and mercury. “How can the people who live here stand it?” I wondered.

The answer to my question was easy. There is no way the people can stand it. And the people of Southeast Chicago are rising up to stop the dumps.

Taking a stand

“No dumps, no deals, again!” This was the slogan plastered all over the Southeast side of Chicago last winter. Demonstrators, carrying a sea of signs, brought the demand to City Hall Dec. 7, 2004. A militant group of Latina mothers caught the ear of the press. “We can’t let our kids out to play, the smell is so bad,” one mother said.

A two-and-a-half-foot stack of petitions, with 17,000 signatures, repeated: No dumps, no deals, again!

The “No dumps” part is easy to understand. The “No deals, again” part reflects the 25 years of struggle against Waste Management of Illinois. Over the years, some victories were won. Too often, promises were made … and broken.

Waste Management

Waste Management, the nationwide, multi-billion dollar corporate garbage powerhouse, asked for an extension to dump another 6 million tons of garbage over five years in Southeast Chicago. The community, fed up with the stink and stinking deals, said “No!” Without the extension, the dumping contract expires in 2005.

Close to 100 million tons of garbage have already been dumped in Southeast metro Chicago. This area has the largest concentration of garbage landfills in the Midwest. More out-of-state garbage has come into Illinois than any other state in the U.S.

Even without garbage dumps, Southeast Chicago already had a serious pollution problem. For over 100 years, workers in this area labored in the steel mills and other heavy industries. They made the companies and the city rich. The companies were

allowed to foul the rivers and lakes, and pollute the soil and air. The workers and their families paid the price with higher rates of cancer, asthma and other illnesses.

The company tried to buy off some protesters by sweetening the deal. Let us dump 6 million more tons of garbage, they said.

Then, we will build a park on top of the garbage and give it to the community.

Only a couple of leaders bit at the bait. Everyone else saw through the fake offer.

The sweet smell of success

There’s nothing like 17,000 petition signatures to turn a city alderman from “We have to study this issue” to staunch support of the “No dumps” position. John Pope, 10th ward alderman, wrote an ordinance to extend the moratorium on dumping for two years. It passed the City Council unanimously. Now Pope has pledged to seek a permanent moratorium against dumping in Southeast Chicago.

“How did you get 17,000 signatures?” the World asked Marian Byrnes. Byrnes is secretary and a founder of the Southeast Environmental Task Force. “We formed a very broad coalition,” she replied.

Over 100 people, from high school students to retirees, worked on the “No dumps” petition. On Election Day 2004, they covered the polling places and collected 7,000 signatures. On Report Card Day, when parents pick up their children’s report cards,

they petitioned at the schools. Church services were another good opportunity to get many signatures. The “No dumps” petitioners went wherever people gather.

Environmental racism

The majority of the residents of Southeast Chicago are people of color. Residents of Altgeld Gardens, a Chicago housing project here, are 97 percent African American. Residents describe their location as “the toxic doughnut.” Dumps and other major polluters surround their buildings.

In 1969, Hazel Johnson, mother of seven, lost her 41-year-old husband John to lung cancer. She suspected that the polluted air was a factor in her husband’s untimely death. Many neighbors agreed with her. With the help of her neighbors, Johnson organized “People for Community Recovery” in 1982.

The next year, a study showed that cancer rates in Southeast Chicago were double the rate of other Chicago communities.

Johnson called it environmental racism. “Environmental racism is genocide,” she charged.

People for Community Recovery won a number of local victories. They won water and sewer service for the senior housing annex of Altgeld Gardens.

Johnson has earned the honorary title of “Mother of Environmental Justice.” Johnson said her belief is, “The world should not be disintegrating around us because of our neglect. We should be able to pass on to our children the same blue sky and fresh air we grew up with.”

A massive struggle in Warren County, N.C., helped make environmental racism and justice a national issue. Residents were fighting the expansion of a PCB landfill in an African American neighborhood. Several hundred protesters were arrested. They did not stop the expansion of the landfill. But their protest sparked a congressional investigation and better regulations.

Hoosiers fight a toxic dump

At the state line, Southeast Chicago ends and Northwest Indiana begins. Little else changes. The state line is just a political boundary. Geography and the economy are the same except most Chicago mills have closed. Indiana steel mills and the oil refineries are still running. In Illinois, the issue is dumping solid wastes. In Indiana, there is an equally deadly

buildup of poisons in the waterways.

Now the Army Corps of Engineers says something has to be done about the Indiana Harbor Ship Canal. They are not worried about the signs that say, “Don’t eat the fish or swim in these waters.” (As though anyone would want to eat those fish!) According to a 1996 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report, many of the fish have “eroded fins, swollen eyes, deformed lower jaws, and evidence of internal hemorrhaging.”

The reason the Corps of Engineers wants to dredge the canal is that it has filled up with sludge. They want to dredge the canal to make it easier (cheaper) for ore boats to deliver to the steel mills. But the canal mud is loaded with mercury, lead, arsenic, zinc, chromium, benzene, naphthalene and PCBs. The heavy pollution was the result of unregulated dumping by the steel mills, oil refineries, and city sewage plants.

What should they do with 4.7 million cubic yards of dredged toxic sediment? The Corps of Engineers got permission from the city of East Chicago, Indiana, to dump the poisoned mud near two schools, Central High and West Side Junior High. They would construct a “confined disposal facility,” or CDF. Over 30 years the CDF would grow into a 28-foot-tall truncated pyramid covering 134 acres of land. Work would continue for 30 years. Only then would the CDF be sealed with a cap of clay, sand, and topsoil.

Residents were never consulted about the toxic waste dump. The East Chicago government was notoriously corrupt. It was charged that they were absentee politicians who did not even live in the town they were willing to further pollute. They would have gotten away with it if people had not organized and fought back.

Coalition for a Clean Environment

A truly rank-and-file movement formed “Citizens for a Clean Environment.” It was as grassroots as it gets, working out of members’ homes. They came together to demand safeguards, especially for the children attending the adjacent schools. It took a big fight just to get information. In time, sympathetic university scientists provided the coalition with the technical

information they needed. As residents suspected, Army Corps plans did not provide safeguards for the people. The Army Corps was sent back to the drawing board. And in a stunning political upset, the East Chicago mayor and council were voted out of office.

Letter writing, phone calls, petition signing and indoor rallies were all part of the fightback. A march of hundreds to East Chicago’s City Hall in April 2003 put the issue into the national media. Marchers charged environmental racism. About 88 percent of East Chicago residents are people of color, with 52 percent Latino and 35 percent African American.

The protests have forced the Army Corps to redesign the CDF with additional safeguards against leakage. Betty Balanoff, a coordinator for Citizens for a Clean Environment, told the World: “We do want the canal cleaned up because it is evaporating and polluting our air. But we do not want toxic wastes dumped in a CDF that is poorly built and will further pollute our air

and soil.” She added that requests for improvements are met with the excuse of no money.

Balanoff continued, “There is no money to insure the project, to indemnify the community for property losses or for additional health problems. The law mandates a cleanup of the site and the dredging of the canal. But if there is not enough money to do it safely, more money must be found. … The community cannot be expected to pay the difference in human life and damaged children.”

Beatrice Lumpkin ( is a leader of Illinois Alliance of Retired Americans and a longtime activist in South Chicago and among steelworkers. Lumpkin wrote “Always Bring a Crowd,” a book about her steelworker husband, Frank Lumpkin.

Steelworkers union supports clean environment

The fight against the dumps received strong support from the United Steelworkers of America, AFL-CIO. Pollution was sickening steelworker families. It was natural that the union would fight to clean up the environment. Unions have been slandered as posing jobs vs. environment. This official USWA statement answers the slander:

“The problems of acid rain, global warming, ozone depletion, oceanic pollution world remind us that we can no longer think of ourselves solely as citizens of the U.S. or Canada, or even as North Americans. The potential catastrophe is global.

Environment must be a global issue.

“But is it a union issue? Should we work to protect the environment merely as good citizens, or is there a special role for our union to play?

“We believe the answers are clear. Environment is an essential union issue. Environmental work must be part of our mission at every level of the union. We must continue to work for progressive legislation. This includes:

• Improving air and water quality.

• Requiring reductions in toxic waste and restricting the use of toxic chemicals.

• Promoting recycling in ways that protect union jobs.

• Protecting “whistleblowers” who report suspected environmental violations, and workers who refuse to carry out an order that violates environmental laws or endangers the public.

• Guaranteeing income protection and job retraining for workers displaced because of environmental problems.

• Ensuring that new technology is introduced in a way that is subject to democratic planning, and protects the interests of working people and their communities.

• Banning, or defining as an unfair trade practice, the import of produts made abroad under conditions that do not meet environmental standards.

• Prohibiting the dumping of toxic waste from North America in developing countries, and the export of products or processes that are banned in the exporting country for environmental reasons.

• Supporting strong international agreements on greenhouse warming ozone depletion, and other global issues.

• Giving financial aid and debt relief to developing countries, in order to help sustainable development.”


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