It was only last December that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Pat Quinn visited the southeast side to promote the creation of the great Millennium Reserve—140,000 acres of wildlife and park space ideal for hiking, bird-watching, and Thoreau-like contemplation of nature.
"This is one of the greatest pockets of wilderness that God ever created," said Quinn, who was pumping in $18 million for the first phase of restoration.
Calling Lake Michigan "our Grand Canyon," Emanuel said the reserve would be a "recreational frontier."
That was then.
Now, just a few months later, Ninth Ward alderman Anthony Beale, one of the mayor's City Council allies, is proposing an ordinance that would lift the city's moratorium on landfills that had been operating near the proposed reserve—meaning the recreational frontier could be threatened by smog, noise, noxious odors, and potential runoff or leaks from the dumping sites.
Not quite what Thoreau had in mind.
For the record, Alderman Beale says he's actually against the ordinance he's promoting. That is, he doesn't want to lift the moratorium.
So what's going on?
In 2004, Mayor Daley and the City Council imposed a 20-year moratorium on all landfill operations. The ban extended citywide, but the greatest impact was on the southeast side—that once-heavily-industrialized corner of the city along the Indiana state line. The area has been home to some of the region's largest and most noxious-smelling landfill operations for decades.
The moratorium was imposed in part because of pressure from southeast-side environmentalists, such as Peggy Salazar.
"You can't have a viable community with landfills," says Salazar, a member of the Southeast Environmental Task Force. "You can't have viable communities that people are dying to live in. They're dying, but not to live in."
Salazar says she was pleased that Emanuel and Quinn had proposed the Millennium Reserve.
But last month a local waste disposal company, Land and Lakes, sued the city to have its 86-acre landfill mapped out of the southeast side and into suburban Dolton.
According to Thomas Geselbracht, the private attorney representing Land and Lakes, state law allows for property owners to "disconnect" from one municipality and join another "if one of six specific statutory factors are met."
As far as Geselbracht knows, no property owners have taken advantage of the law to move in or out of Chicago, but such cases are not uncommon in the suburbs.
If Land and Lakes prevails—the case is scheduled to go to trial later this month—then the company will be able to reopen its landfill because Dolton doesn't have a moratorium.
Apparently, Doltonians are of sturdier stock than Chicagoans. Either that or their elected officials are even less protective of the environment than Chicago's—as hard as that is to believe.
The lawsuit led to the following dilemma: If Land and Lakes wins, Chicago residents will get all the negativity of landfill operation without any of the good stuff—assuming you believe there is some good stuff.
After all, it's not as though southeast-side residents would be any farther away from the operations just because, technically, the landfill will be in Dolton. They'll still smell the noxious fumes and breathe the fetid air.
Yet the landfill operating fees and taxes will go to Dolton, not Chicago.
In short, if you're going to get the stink you might as well get the cash. Or something like that.
That's why Beale says he's putting aside his philosophical opposition to lifting the landfill for the fiduciary betterment of Chicago. "I'm not in favor of lifting the moratorium," he says. "However, if the city loses the lawsuit and loses that tax base and everything, we have to do something."
Beale says that by lifting the moratorium the city can negotiate an operating agreement that benefits the surrounding communities. "We can get a better price on dumping city garbage," he says. "My ordinance is just the start of the discussion."
Salazar and other residents say they're not buying it.
For starters, lifting the moratorium opens the doors for other landfill operators, like Waste Management, to resume dumping in their currently closed landfills on the southeast side.
Meaning even more noxious odors.
Second, it's not as though Chicago's a helpless little foe in the disconnection lawsuit. It's the city of Chicago, for goodness sake, with a battalion of lawyers and the bullying skills of the mayor, one of the most powerful political figures in the country.
In other words, it's hard to imagine a local judge ruling against Emanuel and the city. But if Land and Lakes manages to find one who does, the city can always appeal and appeal and appeal.
If they want, the city can drag the case on for years in much the same way that Mayor Daley eventually wore out Bensenville and other suburbs in the legal fight to expand O'Hare Airport.
By fighting the lawsuit, the city can effectively keep the moratorium in place.
And there's the rub.
A lot of southeast-side residents are starting to think Mayor Emanuel isn't that interested in fighting to preserve the moratorium. Why else would he allow Beale to introduce his ordinance?
I e-mailed Emanuel's press spokesperson for comment, but she did not respond.
The underlying assumption is that Beale—a very loyal Emanuel supporter—wouldn't undercut the city's case in the disconnection lawsuit without the mayor's approval.
"I think this is a chess game and all these pieces are being moved around the board," says Salazar. "The community loses in the process."
As part of the game, different aldermen play different roles.
In this case, Alderman John Pope, whose ward, the Tenth, currently includes the landfill, says he's against Beale's ordinance. This allows him to act as though he's fighting pollution with the environmentalists. Beale, meanwhile, accepts his role as the bad guy, in part because there's less organized opposition to landfills in his neighboring ward.
And the mayor gets to pretend he's just a neutral observer fighting to preserve the very environment his city is actually allowing to be destroyed.
Well, if you ask me, that's what's going on.
Not so, says Beale. "These guys have a pretty good legal case—they could win and get disconnected," he insists.
But what about the argument made by environmentalists that you have to fight to keep the moratorium and protect the environment?
"They have blinders on—they don't want to see what I'm trying to do," says Beale. "I'm trying to protect the community. I am not in favor of dumping more garbage in the community."
And the mayor?
"The mayor has no position at this point. But the mayor's going to have to have a position if he loses the lawsuit."
So essentially, the decision facing Chicago is this: take the landfill fees or breathe clean air.
Of course, the farther you get away from the southeast side, the easier it is to say, Gimme the cash!
It would be interesting to see what would happen if Land and Lakes were proposing to set up operation somewhere on the north side. Then we'd see how long it would take Mayor Emanuel to take a stance.