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Feature Tue Jun 30 2009
As he pauses at the corner of 31st Street and Central Park in Little Village, Rafael Hurtado can only think about factories. Turn any way, and they're all he sees, and on the worst days, they're all he smells. On a drizzly April morning, the smell isn't nearly as repugnant as it is on unbearably hot summer days, but Hurtado still has a message for anyone listening. Hurtado, an 18-year-old Little Village resident, volunteers as a tour guide for Toxic Tours, which guide people around the load of manufacturing plants and chemical sites that have been polluting the community for years.
The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) started the tours about seven years ago as a way to educate the community and others about the looming toxic presence of several industries right in their backyards.
On this April morning, in the midst of the murmuring steady rainfall, the noise of sirens, trains and cars passing through puddles briefly disturbs his message, but Hurtado continues with his story. He became involved with LVEJO in 2002 after noticing a rally outside his home protesting for more parks in the area.
"We only have one park in Little Village, and it's only accessible to one-third of the community because it's all the way on the west side," he says. "For you to go over there, you don't have to be part of a gang... they'll harass you."
Soon after the 2002 rally, he started volunteering with the group, and slowly began connecting some of the community's health problems with the industries concentrated in the area. He thought back to fourth grade, when he was diagnosed with asthma. At first, he thought asthma was something hereditary, "like baldness," he says.
"So I was like, 'My dad has asthma, maybe I have asthma,"' he says. His father worked in a factory and developed breathing problems after years of work. "There were times he couldn't sleep because he couldn't breathe," Hurtado remembers.
After learning more through LVEJO, he started to take a closer look at the industry that surrounds his home and his school — Multicultural Arts High School. One day during baseball practice, he had to pause to catch his breath. Looking at his surroundings, Hurtado could only see factories again.
"Our field is right by the train tracks. And from our field it is a perfect view — you can see the industry," he says. "My high school is next to a factory, and on the side of the railroad tracks [there's another] ...it's surrounded by industry, and from our baseball field you can see everything."
Sites on the Toxic Tours include MRC Polymers, Meyer Steel Drum, Crawford Generating Station [PDF] (a coal power plant owned by Midwest Generation, an Edison International Company), and Prima Plastics. When he stops at the first tour site, MRC Polymers, Hurtado explains that LVEJO was lobbying for more park space after this space opened up, but the factory was built instead, even after promises from Alderman Ricardo Muñoz (22nd Ward). While 75 to 100 jobs were promised, Hurtado notes, so far only two Little Village residents have been hired. (A phone call to Ald. Muñoz's office was not returned before press time.) But even after these concerns, this site, which recycles and melts plastic, isn't the worst of the community's problems because it doesn't pollute nearly as much as some other sites.
To see the pollution, especially on hot summer days, Hurtado says to stop by the Crawford Generating Station at 3501 S. Pulaski Rd. Children call it the "cloud factory" because "they see all the smoke going out to the sky and they think it's the clouds," Hurtado says. According to stats from Scorecard, part of the nonprofit Green Media Toolshed, Crawford released 130,081 pounds of "suspected skin or sense organ toxicants" in the air in 2002, followed by 110,821 pounds of "suspected respiratory toxicants" and 110,210 pounds of "suspected gastrointestinal or liver toxicants."
Midwest Generation states on its website [PDF] that nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emission levels are "well below" EPA standards. The company has operated Crawford and the Fisk Generating Station in Pilsen since 1999, says Douglas McFarlan, senior vice president of public affairs for Midwest Generation. According to McFarlan, the power plants emit three main pollutants that the company strives to control: sulfur dioxide, which contributes to acid rain; nitrogen oxide; and mercury. Since 1999, Midwest Generation has installed new equipment and purchased a higher grade of coal to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 30 percent, nitrogen oxide ("a precursor to smog," McFarlan says) by 60 percent, and mercury by 80 percent.
Even with new controls to limit pollution, however, striking numbers reflect Little Village's ghostly past: According to a report compiled by the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, Chicago ranks second among all cities in the country adversely affected by power plant pollution, leading to 855 premature deaths, 848 hospitalizations, 1,519 heart attacks and 23,650 asthma attacks. The report also states that according to EPA officials, fine particle pollution from power plants shortens the lives of 1,356 Illinoisans every year, citing Crawford and Fisk as two main pollutants. The report goes on to mention that some of the current equipment in both plants dates back to 1959, and "because of their age, plants such as Fisk and Crawford are often exempt from rigorous clean air regulations."
Since the factories are old, McFarlan recognizes that the plants are "regulated differently than brand new construction," but he adds that there are still "cost-effective ways to reduce emissions." Midwest Generation employs about 200 workers between the two sites," he adds.
On some of the tours, Hurtado says that it's not uncommon for people to get sick from the smells, especially during the warmer weather. Many times, people have to go back to the group's offices, at 2856 S. Millard Ave., in order to get away from the smells and to relieve headaches. He sometimes refers to Little Village as the "asthma capital" of Chicago, and though more people are spreading the word about the pollution, statistics only seem to get worse over the years.
"When we used to do Toxic Tours two or three years ago, we would say statistics like, 'There are 41 premature deaths a year, 2,800 asthma attacks per year in Little Village and 551 emergency visits related to asthma,'" Hurtado says. "We tell people now it's probably worse. Let's say you're near a river and you start kicking dirt in it. If you kick some dirt in it, it's just going to wash away. But if you keep doing it, it's going to get dirty... It's not like there's a box over Little Village that keeps the pollution here. The pollution's spread over a 300-mile radius. There are probably 50 premature deaths now, more than 3,500 asthma attacks and over 600 emergency room visits [related to asthma]."
For more information, and to sign up for a Toxic Tour, check out LVEJO's homepage. The group also produces great blogs on public transit, clean energy and general activism. Since leading this particular tour in April, Hurtado graduated from Multicultural Arts High School. He will be attending Morton College in the fall.
To view photos on Flickr from this particular tour click here.