Public health researchers have found elevated levels of manganese, a heavy metal that can cause neurological disorders and other health problems, in the toenails of children living in Chicago's Southeast Side neighborhood. Environmentalists are nearly certain they know why.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working with two industrial facilities that handle large amounts of manganese on the Southeast Side to reduce dangerous dust drifting into nearby residential areas, but enforcement has lagged since the Trump administration took over the agency, according to Debbie Chizewer, an attorney with the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University's Pritzker School of Law.
"As far as we know, [the] EPA has taken no further action to contain these emissions," Chizewer told Truthout in an interview.
This is not just a problem in Chicago. Across the country, the number of enforcement actions issued by the EPA has markedly declined since Trump took office and placed Scott Pruitt at the head of the agency, according to a recent investigation by the New York Times.
Trump and Pruitt have launched a sweeping rollback of Obama-era environmental protections and argue that regulators should work closer with polluting industry to find environmental solutions that won't hamper business. However, their agenda appears to already be impacting vulnerable areas like the Southeast Side of Chicago, which is considered an environmental justice community because residents tend to be lower-income people of color who must contend with multiple sources of industrial pollution.
On Tuesday, a coalition of environmental and community groups sent a letter to Mayor Rahm Emmanuel demanding that the city intervene to stop the fugitive dust threatening Southeast Side residents. The EPA's "current inaction" is allowing the two industrial terminals that handle manganese to "pollute with impunity," and the "stakes for children in the neighborhood could not be higher," the letter states.
After months of pushback and wrangling with community groups and regulators, the operator of one terminal, S.H. Bell Co., agreed to place air pollution monitors at its facility. Within months, the monitors affirmed what residents and advocates had feared since at least 2014: Dust containing manganese was drifting from the facility at levels that exceed federal health standards.
A recent study conducted near a hazardous waste incinerator and another S.H. Bell industrial terminal in East Liverpool, Ohio, found a significant link between elevated manganese levels in the area and lower IQ scores in children.
The EPA slapped S.H. Bell with a federal air pollution violation in August. Chizewer said such violations typically require the polluter to come up with a plan to fix the problem, but little progress has been made since the violation was issued.
"Nothing public has happened," Chizewer said. "No announcement of a lawsuit, no announcement that S.H. Bell is going to do something different at the sites in response to EPA's violation."
Watco, a company that operates the other industrial depot that handles manganese near Southeast Side residences, has so far resisted orders from the city to install air pollution monitors by applying for an exemption under Chicago's fugitive dust prevention program, according to Chizewer. The city initiated the program after Southeast Side residents organized to stop the storage of petroleum coke, a byproduct of refining oil extracted at the Alberta Tar Sands, in large, open-air piles.
In their letter to Emmanuel, the environmental groups said there is a "pattern" of polluters resisting monitoring because it inevitably reveals that their operations are a threat to public health.
"Companies historically do not have incentive to address pollution, they have an incentive to do whatever they need to do to get rid of materials to run their business ... and if nobody is monitoring, there is very little business [incentive] for them to be on top of that pollution," said Meleah Geertsma, a staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national group that is supporting grassroots efforts in Southeast Chicago.
Geertsma said the EPA Region 5, the regional office in Chicago that covers much of the industrial Great Lakes region, has a reputation for being more proactive than other regional offices. However, this has changed under the Trump administration.
"There is a longstanding effort to better characterize what's going on with air pollution in these communities, and EPA has been a critical part of that, and I think what you are seeing now is an about-face," Geertsma told Truthout in an interview.
Truthout contacted EPA Region 5 officials overseeing the S.H. Bell facility and its dust-monitoring program, but they did not provide comment by the time this article was published. An EPA fact sheet says that officials continue to inspect the facility to ensure compliance with federal regulations, but no update on the August air pollution violation has been posted on the agency's web page for the facility.
In a statement issued to local media outlets this week, S.H. Bell said it has invested $2 million in dust-control "improvements" at its facility in Chicago, which has been in compliance with local and federal air quality requirements since the EPA issued the violation in August.
EPA workers in the agency's Chicago office loudly opposed Pruitt's nomination and tensions have been high since Trump took office and proposed deep cuts to the EPA's budget. The New York Times reported this week that EPA employees who spoke out against Trump and Pruitt had their emails scrutinized by a Republican political operative with links to a media-consulting firm hired by top EPA officials. That firm soon lost its contract with the agency.
Employees may be keeping a low profile, but the union representing EPA workers in the Chicago office has criticized the agency for failing to protect Southeast Chicago from pollution since Trump took office. The American Federation of Government Employees Local 704 posted this tweet on Wednesday:
The union is also slamming Cathy Stepp, the Trump administration's new pick to run the Region 5 office in Chicago. Stepp, a Republican businesswoman-turned-politician, formerly served as head of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), where she came under fire for decreasing enforcement, shrinking the agency's scientific research bureau and scrubbing information from the state website linking human activity to climate change, according to reports.
John O'Grady, president of the EPA's national employee union, said Stepp appears to be "another non-scientist who doesn't acknowledge that climate change is real."
"Putting Ms. Stepp in charge of the largest Regional Office in the US EPA is akin to asking the fox to guard the hen house," O'Grady said in a statement. "If her record at WDNR is any indication, Ms. Stepp will successfully cut funding for enforcement, along with fines for violations. In fact, US EPA Region 5's enforcement efforts can be expected to plummet."
Plummeting enforcement would not be good news for residents of Chicago's Southeast Side, who are already asking the city to step up and protect them from pollution that the EPA is supposed to be keeping at bay. Trump and Pruitt made it clear from day one that reducing the EPA's authority over big business was on their agenda. If children in Southeast Chicago are any evidence, it will be the most vulnerable among us who will be harmed by this agenda first.