Green in the City

Big problem in Little Village

By Kimani Smith

Photos by Kimani Smith

Little Village, a neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest Side, is home to two environmentally toxic companies that emit pollutants that have been linked to high incidences of asthma, respiratory illnesses and cancer-related diseases. For residents in the area, this adds up to a big problem in Little Village.

One company, MRC Polymers, recycles and compounds plastics. The other, Meyer Steel Drum, produces and distributes steel and plastic drums, intermediate bulk containers and specialty containers. When MRC Polymers built its factory in Little Village, it took about 15 acres of green space—space that families had been hoping would be used for barbecues and other gatherings.

Meyer Steel Drum dumps toxins into sewer drains that flow into the city’s rivers and lakes. Toxins that don’t get dumped into the sewer system get burned, releasing other harmful toxins into the air, another health hazard for neighborhood residents.

But some in Little Village are taking on the big problem. One group is the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, or LVEJO, which tries to combat companies that bring health issues to the neighborhood, which is home to 100,000 residents.

LVEJO offers “Community Assets Toxic Tours” that educate the community and others about the toxic dangers and impacts of environmental racism in their own backyards. According to its Web site, LVEJO works “with, not against our Mother Earth and Nature,” to improve air quality, make water safe to drink and free the environment from poisons that contaminate the food supply.

“Our organization holds protests, circulates petitions, creates ads and holds community meetings to mobilize residents in the fight against toxins such as mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that threaten the health of Little Villagers,” says Lilian Molina, youth coordinator with LVEJO who conducts the toxic tours around the neighborhood.

LVEJO has taken on Meyer Steel Drum, documenting the company’s pollution in the neighborhood. LVEJO found that many residents who lived within a two-block radius of the company were concerned about the dust and ash coming from the company and drifting in through open windows.

Meyer Steel Drum and MRC Polymers aren’t the only companies adding to environmental hazards in Little Village. Perhaps the worst offender of all is the Crawford Coal Power Plant. Several years ago the Chicago Reader reported on a Harvard School of Public Health study that concluded that Crawford was one of two Illinois power plants responsible for “approximately 2,800 asthma attacks, 550 emergency room visits and 41 premature deaths every year.”

The Crawford plant, built in 1929, is owned by Midwest Generation, which, according to company database firm Hoover’s, sells wholesale electricity to markets in the Midwest. Two years ago, the federal Environmental Protection Agency found Midwest Generation in violation of the Clean Air Act, although no action has been taken against the company, ABC-7’s Linda Yu reported in July. This summer a coalition of environmental groups announced it would file a lawsuit against Midwest Generation for the particles that spew from its plants.

In response, Midwest Generation released a statement saying it has lowered nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions since it bought the plandrt from ComEd in 1999, Yu reported.

The big problem of toxic dangers in Little Village touches everyone. Some of the neighborhood’s high school students are among those leading the charge against what they see as environmental injustice. Working for LVEJO, the students have been trained to lead toxic tours themselves.

One student, Amairani Galvan, 15, and a 2009 Green in the City fellow, wants to see companies clean up their act in Little Village. “The Crawford Coal Power plant is not benefitting Illinois,” says Galvan, who’s entering her sophomore year at Farragut Career Academy. “It occupies 72 acres of space that could be used for family recreation.”


The Washington Post


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Bushra Kabir, Northside College Prep

Bri'anna Moore, Waukegan High School

Managing editors

Brenda Becerra, Curie High School

Amairani Galvan, Farragut Career Academy

Photo editors

Jasmine Johnson, Homewood-Flossmoor High School

Kimani Smith, Noble Street College Prep

Multimedia editors

LeJohn Montgomery, Hales Franciscan High School

Morgan Selvage, King College Prep

Contributing reporters

Carissa A. Eclarin, Schurz High School

Vivianna Galvan, Farragut Career Academy

Daniela Jurado, Farragut Career Academy

Safiya Merchant, Lane Tech High School

Demetria Taylor, Lindblom Math and Science Academy

Chad Wilson, Lindblom Math and Science Academy

Professional staff
Nancy Day, chair, Journalism Department, Columbia College

Workshop director:
Brenda Butler, media specialist and former Chicago Tribune senior features editor

Rui Kaneya, managing editor, The Chicago Reporter

Maudlyne Ihejirika, assistant city editor, Chicago Sun-Times

Charlie Meyerson, former Chicago Tribune online editor, now WGN-AM news director

Billy Montgomery, reporter, photographer, professor, Columbia College

Lynn Norment, former Ebony Magazine managing editor, now media relations specialist, Carol H. Williams Agency

Antonio Olivo, immigration reporter, Chicago Tribune

Nancy Traver, professor and writing coach, Columbia College

Avis Weathersbee, former Chicago Sun-Times assistant managing editor, now blogger and writer/editor

Cassandra West, former Womanews editor, Chicago Tribune, now writer and photographer

Mike Zajakowski, picture editor, Chicago Tribune

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