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Toxic city: site fright holds up a new school for Little Village



The site had been selected for three years, the building plans had been approved months ago, and the city was set to break ground on December 1 for one of its more worthwhile construction endeavors--a new school for the southwest-side community of Little Village.

But in its haste to relieve the neighborhood's horribly overcrowded schools, the Daley administration made a big blunder: they selected a site across the street from a steel-drum recycling facility--a site that might be soaked with chemical poisons.

The lot the city had chosen was at 31st and Millard, across the street from Meyer Steel Drum, where dozens of trucks deposit hundreds of steel drums every day. Each year thousands of gallons of chemical refuse are burned in the company's ovens, and until recently it stored emptied steel drums in trailers parked on the lot where the city wants to build the school. No one knows exactly whether the ground or air in and around the school site has been contaminated, because the city has never thoroughly studied the matter.

"We want new schools, but it's mind-boggling to think they'd even consider this site without thorough study," says Howard Ehrman, a Little Village resident. "There are so many dangers: chemicals, trucks, fumes released by Meyer and other nearby industries."

In November the city halted construction plans after Ehrman and others, who had been pleading since the summer for more studies, aired their concerns at a public meeting. "We felt that this place was OK, and we were ready to go, but because of the community's concern we will do more testing," says Susan Ross, a spokesperson for the Public Building Commission, the entity that oversees municipal construction projects. "Yes, we're concerned about the health of kids--we all have kids ourselves. But each site in the city has its pluses and minuses. That's the way it is as a community changes from industrial to residential."

The impetus to build the new school is overcrowding, caused as thousands of Mexican immigrants have moved into Little Village over the last several years. The Gary Elementary School, for instance, at 3740 W. 31st St., was built for 700 students and now enrolls about 1,900. "We put classes in hallways and lunchrooms--wherever we find the space," says Elvira Chicon, chairperson of Gary's local school council. "These are horrible conditions for teachers and children."

The challenge, however, was finding appropriate sites for new schools in Little Village, which is old and heavily industrialized. "In the old days you could just build a school on a big plot of vacant farm land, but you can't do that anymore," says Ross. "In Little Village most of the land has something on it, and each lot has its drawbacks. We don't want kids to have to cross a busy street or a viaduct. There are all sorts of safety issues to address."

In 1990 the city and the Board of Education decided to build five new schools in Little Village, including one at the vacant lot at 31st and Millard. (None of the other sites have been officially approved for development.) As part of its prepurchase inspection procedure the board and the Public Building Commission hired an environmental consulting firm to inspect the lot on Millard. In April 1991 the consultant issued a report, warning that the site is surrounded by "industrial facilities," whose "high potential of hazardous discharge . . . potentially can impact the subsurface environment."

A few weeks later, the same consultants tested the soil and issued a report concluding that "there are no environmentally related hazards found in the sampled areas of the site." With those reports in hand, the PBC bought the property, hired an architect, signed a construction contract, and were moving ahead with the formality of winning plan approval from the Chicago Plan Commission so Mayor Daley could attend a ground-breaking ceremony on December 1.

All the while Ehrman, a doctor and an expert on community health issues, was getting together with other residents to conduct their own investigation of the weed-filled, litter-strewn lot. They talked to people who lived near the Meyer drum company, who told them about the foul burning odors the facility emitted, particularly in the early afternoon. They saw steady streams of trucks lumbering onto the Meyer lot, loaded high with 55-gallon drums. And they took pictures of drums, some labeled with warnings of toxic or spontaneously combustible chemicals, stored in trailers parked on the proposed school site or on the sidewalk across the street.

"The back ends of some trailers have chains running across, but any kid could get in," says Albert Villasenor, a Little Village resident. "Those drums aren't completely empty; they're allowed to keep up to an inch of chemicals in them. If you lit a match they'd go up. It's not something you'd want near kids."

Ehrman contacted the Citizens for a Better Environment, and the group's staff scientist, Jill Viehweg, began poring over Meyer's state and federal environmental records. Viehweg learned that there had been a major fire at Meyer in 1988, and that from 1989 to 1992 it had not filed its Toxic Release Inventory, a list required by the U.S. EPA of dangerous chemicals the company releases into the environment each year.

Viehweg also read the consultants' reports, which she says are flawed. "The reports don't mention the fire, or Meyer's failure to file its TRI, or that the trucks parked in the lot contain drums with hazardous residue," says Viehweg. "The reports don't mention Meyer by name. You could read them and not know that the school would be across the street from Meyer."

Moreover, Ehrman suspects the soil-sample tests may be outdated. "Those tests were done two years ago," he says. "There have been drums stored there since."

Finally, no study had been made of air pollution. "There are factories all around that site, aside from Meyer and its oven," says Ehrman. "You'd think someone in the city would say, 'Let's study the air.' But they didn't."

In August the PBC responded to Ehrman's complaints by hiring a consultant to do a six-day study, which found no evidence of air contamination. But Ehrman isn't convinced. "It was a limited test," he says. "It didn't test for the specific toxic by-products emitted by industries in the area."

On November 10 the PBC asked the Plan Commission to approve the building plan. But the commission deferred a vote on the matter after pleas from Ehrman and Villasenor.

By then it was clear that the Daley administration faced an embarrassing situation. The mayor's chief environmental aide, Henry Henderson, commissioner of the city's Department of Environment, had to admit he knew nothing of potential hazards on the site because he had only been notified about the proposed school the day before the Plan Commission meeting. A meeting was quickly arranged between Henderson and the residents, where he assured them that he would recommend at least a seven-day air-quality study.

But Ehrman and other residents wanted a 30-day study conducted. "This is a clear case of environmental racism; the city would never let this happen in a middle-class neighborhood," says Ehrman. "The fact that they didn't keep Henderson informed shows you how little the city cares about these issues."

Not true, Henderson counters. "We're a new department"--about two years old--"and people [in government] are just becoming aware of what role we play. Proper studies will get done."

While the PBC decides on the length of a new air-quality study, the matter is becoming a heated political issue in Little Village. A major proponent of the site is the United Neighborhood Organization, a coalition of community groups based in Hispanic neighborhoods. UNO, which has close ties to Daley, takes credit for convincing the city to build schools in Little Village and resents the criticism the site has generated.

"I think it's an appropriate site for a school," says Juan Rangel, director of UNO's Little Village operation. "There have been studies. I lived near that site for years and I'm fine. We don't have a lot of sites to choose from."

Rangel notes that Emma Lozano (who grew up in the neighborhood) and Slim Coleman (who didn't), both political opponents of Daley, have voiced opposition to the site since the November Plan Commission meeting. "I find it very interesting that these critics would come out of the blue at the 11th hour," says Rangel. "They have a history of being against the mayor. It's got nothing to do with the site."

Chicon vehemently disagrees. "This is about the welfare of children, not politics," she says. "Dr. Ehrman raised these issues, and he and his family live here. UNO doesn't represent us. There are no UNO backers on our council. Rangel and UNO are the outsiders."

For its part, Meyer feels maligned. "Meyer's not the only factory there, yet they're getting blamed for all the pollution," says Rick Boonstra, Meyer's lawyer. "My client runs one of the best recycling facilities in the city." The company has updated its operation since the fire, Boonstra says, and he blames its failure to file TRI reports on "a previous consultant who didn't know what he was doing."

Boonstra says there's been a drum-recycling business on this site for 50 years. Having a school next door would certainly make things tricky for Meyer. "My client objects to a school being built there, but we have expressed a willingness to work with the city to mitigate any problems," says Boonstra. "Everyone's beating up on Meyer, but I think attention should be on whoever decided to put a school across the street from a factory."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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