Samuel Corona, right, outfits his nephew Chris Coward with an air monitor. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Midwest Energy News

“Make sure you note the barbecue,” Samuel Corona told his 21-year-old nephew, Chris Coward, as they walked by Leon’s BBQ joint on 106th Street on Chicago’s Southeast Side.

The aroma coming from Leon’s was mouthwatering, but that wasn’t their focus. Corona explained that smoke from the barbecue could impact readings on the air monitoring equipment Coward carried in a backpack, as his smart phone showed real-time levels of nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide (379 ppm) and particulate matter along with temperature, humidity and other indicators.

Early almost every morning in July, Corona has led a team of volunteers walking routes on the Southeast Side with backpack monitors, in hopes of acquiring data about the neighborhood’s air quality that could help residents argue against more polluting industry and for their vision of a green economic industrial corridor with renewable energy generation and clean transportation.

Through a program funded by the U.S. EPA in conjunction with the Delta Institute and other partners, people in the Southeast Side and three other Chicago communities — the Altgeld Gardens public housing complex, Little Village and the South Loop — are monitoring their air with stationary and mobile equipment for one month. Altgeld Gardens and Little Village, like the Southeast Side, are low-income minority communities that have suffered decades of pollution and become known for their vibrant grassroots environmental justice movements.

On the Southeast Side, the air monitoring project is the latest example of the ripple effects of a neighborhood-led battle against the storage of massive amounts of petroleum coke. Similarly in Little Village, the air monitoring was carried out in June by the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, which gained international acclaim for fighting to close Chicago’s archaic coal plants. The environmental justice group People for Community Recovery will undertake air monitoring in the Altgeld Gardens complex in August, after Corona trains them on the equipment.

“Our industries have made residents prisoners in their own homes, the smells are so bad people don’t even want to go outside,” said Corona, a community organizer for the Southeast Environmental Task Force. “For us to be able to tell people what’s in the air, this is an event.”

An awakening

When Corona, 37, came back from “my four-year vacation in the U.S. Marines” as a helicopter mechanic, he was looking for a new sense of purpose. His attention was caught by efforts to prevent the opening of a coal gasification plant by the controversial company Leucadia on the former site of a steel mill.

“Leucadia made me quite aware that we were never going to see this area turned around if they were going to keep doing projects like this,” said Southeast Environmental Task Force executive director Peggy Salazar.

Ultimately the coal gasification plant did not get subsidies it sought, and it did not open. Corona got involved with an anti-violence program providing positive alternatives to street gangs.

Soon after, he began hearing about the mounds of black powdery petcoke rising up to six stories high along the Calumet River. He joined the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke and the Southeast Environmental Task Force, and began learning about the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, particulate matter and other environmental issues.

“It’s hard to tell people about global warming because you can’t see it,” said Corona. “But petcoke, you could see it physically attacking our community. The chain link fence didn’t hold it back. So for us the greatest thing about the petcoke struggle was to physically see a pollutant and rally around it. Petcoke got people wanting to be organized and engaged and informed.”

After a high-profile fight, the piles of petcoke were eventually removed thanks to a city ordinance and action by the Illinois Attorney General.

The battle was just the beginning for Corona and other residents. His eyes were opened to the many local sources of pollution, the inequities between the Southeast Side and other parts of Chicago, and the way residents could make a difference.

Heavy atmosphere

Corona grew up on the Southeast Side pitching baseballs against the wall of the U.S. Steel Southworks mill that once employed tens of thousands of people. He remembers climbing over the fence to retrieve errant balls, and marveling at the humming machinery. He loved how the streets in his neighborhood, “the Bush,” glowed at night since they were embedded with slag from the mill. He and his friends would use magnets to pick up iron ore rocks in the alleys.

Today the U.S. Steel mill is a vast swath of overgrown land with a few industrial ruins. Corona’s monitoring team tests the air there as a baseline, since there are no longer any sources of pollution nearby. Meanwhile Corona now understands the health, economic and social impacts of living surrounded by industry, even as the good jobs like those at the steel mill have disappeared.

His 10-year-old daughter, like many local kids, has asthma. As he became more aware of pollution, he realized her illness could be sparked or exacerbated by the countless sources of particulate matter and other pollutants.

Walking along 106th Street amidst sunflowers growing from cracks in the pavement, Coward stops constantly to log the number of heavy semi trucks that lumber by emitting diesel fumes. Meanwhile the barges that line the Calumet River are pushed by tugboats that often burn a particularly dirty form of diesel. Locomotives on the railroad tracks that criss-cross the neighborhood are another major source of diesel emissions.

There are piles of bulk material and hulks of industry in every direction. The immediate area also includes an Exelon natural gas peaker plant, a liquid asphalt plant that gets material from the Northwest Indiana BP oil refinery, and various other defunct and operating factories, chemical plants, bulk storage facilities, metal recyclers and auto salvage yards. There’s a sprawling Ford Motors factory. And along the river, the mangled bodies of semi-trucks and cars sit waiting to be crushed and shredded.

“When it gets real hot you feel that heaviness in the air,” Corona said. “You’re short of breath, and it’s not because you’re out of shape. Well sometimes maybe it is because you’re out of shape. But it’s also the particulate matter in the air.”

Armed with data

Once the data from the month of air monitoring has been compiled and analyzed, the Southeast Environmental Task Force and allies will organize community meetings to discuss it. They hope to use the information in larger discussions about the neighborhood’s future. They think such discussions are at a critical juncture since city planning is underway to revamp the Chicago River, and industry along that river in more prosperous neighborhoods could be shoehorned onto the Calumet River on the Southeast Side.

Salazar calls this concern “our tale of two rivers.”

“We’ll have to supply the argument for the green economic industrial corridor,” she said. “We believe the city is still looking at us as a dumping ground.”

Corona and Salazar think the air monitoring project will help make that argument.

“Information is ammunition for us,” Corona said. “We can yell all we want, but without data it’s just an opinion.”

He, Salazar and others hope evidence of air pollution from transportation and local industry will help them push for rezoning and for their vision of a green industrial economic corridor, with factories powered by renewable energy, a community solar installation, electric or compressed natural gas-powered vehicles and renewable energy-related job training.

The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization also hopes to use data from the air monitors to further their push for green development. Youth from the community are helping to analyze the data, learning about larger environmental issues in the process. A branch of the Chicago River runs through Little Village, and LVEJO activists also fear that the citywide river redevelopment plans could place more polluting industry on their riverfront. 

“As communities get more data, they can learn what to do with it,” said LVEJO executive director Kim Wasserman, noting that Little Village is also the site of an air monitor in the city’s new Array of Things project. “They know something is wrong, but the next step is being able to prove it.”

On the Southeast Side and in Little Village, residents decided where to place stationary monitors and what routes to walk with mobile monitors. Wasserman said this exercise itself was a valuable lesson in community geography and mapping, and the group worked with the University of Illinois at Chicago to figure out the best locations.

“Building up to it that way was pretty cool, to start the conversation and empower people,” she said.

Likewise Corona sees the petcoke struggle, the air monitoring project and other environmental justice campaigns as ways to not only improve the local air and water quality, but to strengthen a community distressed by job losses, violence and disinvestment. He laments that things are different than when he grew up, when neighbors from blocks around would call his parents to report if he got in trouble.

“A community starts to sink when people don’t care about it,” he said. “We want to get people engaged more, whether it’s checking on a neighbor or correcting the kids next door. We’re trying to rebuild our community. And this is that vehicle, a way to get people together.”

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.