The S.H. Bell facility that stored manganese in open piles for years abuts a residential area in the East Side neighborhood. Credit: Maya Dukmasova

More than 100 people gathered at a southeast-side community center Thursday evening to hear city and federal officials talk about manganese pollution recently discovered near an industrial storage facility owned by the S.H. Bell Company. The city’s Department of Public Health presented data from soil sampling conduced at 27 addresses; some samples revealed concentrations of the neurotoxic heavy metal that exceeds thresholds for emergency removal. Representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the CDC were also present to outline next steps in analyzing the soil at homes near S.H. Bell. Though the meeting was meant to educate residents about what’s currently known about manganese contamination in the area, the officials were quickly schooled by organized and vocal East Siders, who had little patience for bureaucratic lingo and ambiguous explanations.

Tenth Ward alderman Sue Sadlowski Garza set the tone in her opening remarks before the panel: “I’m a proud resident, and I’m also proud of how hardworking the people are here, and how much this community sticks together,” she said. “We are not just the industrial hub of Chicago, but the industrial hub of the midwest. But that doesn’t mean we have to breathe dirty air, drink dirty water, or have dirty soil.” She thanked the audience for turning out to demand accountability from government agencies that exist to protect them. “We have to be united in this fight to ensure that we’re heard, that people know the Tenth Ward, that we live here, and that we’re done being dumped on, and we’re done being forgotten.”

For the first 20 minutes of the event, the officials outlined what they knew when about manganese emanating from the S.H. Bell facility. Concerns about manganese particles in the air first began to crop up in 2014, when the city was working on legislation to force the nearby KCBX facility to remove its outdoor petcoke piles. The EPA wanted to begin monitoring the air around S.H. Bell that year, but the company fought the agency’s request to install air monitors, Molly Smith of the EPA’s Air Enforcement Division explained. It took a 2016 court order for five different monitors to be installed around the site.

Last summer, the EPA issued a notice of violation for high concentrations of manganese particles to S.H. Bell after collecting data for four months. With the new concerns raised by the city’s soil sampling, Dave Graham of the Chicago Department of Public Health encouraged residents to take several precautions while the EPA was working to conduct more extensive soil sampling at 70 neighborhood homes over the next several weeks: regularly cleaning floors, counters, and toys with soap and water; taking off outdoor shoes when coming into homes; covering open soil in yards with grass, wood chips, or mulch; using raised beds to garden and thoroughly cleaning any vegetables or fruits picked for consumption; and not letting kids play in the dirt.

After these presentations dozens of residents peppered officials with questions, demanding to know why the city and the EPA hadn’t been sounding the alarm about manganese sooner.

“What are you gonna do about the kids who’ve been exposed for years? Are you gonna test my daughter?” asked Liliana Flores, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 20 years. “These kids have been exposed to manganese for years,” she said, her voice breaking as she pointed to her toddler daughter. “How are you going to protect us? You’re giving us tips but should we have to do that? You have to protect us.”

Michelle Colledge, from the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, admitted that little is known about the health effects of manganese on children, because most studies have examined adults working in industrial environments or animals exposed to high doses of the heavy metal. “I know that the problem is that a lot of doctors aren’t trained in environmental medicine,” she said sympathetically. “We need more data and more research.”

“We will be the study participants,” a man responded sarcastically from the audience.

More than 100 residents gathered in an East Side community center to grill city and federal officials on manganese contamination in local air and soil.
More than 100 residents gathered in an East Side community center to grill city and federal officials on manganese contamination in local air and soil.Credit: Maya Dukmasova

Resident after resident described their chronic health conditions, from tremors to tumors, demanding to know whether they could be related to manganese exposure—questions the panelists had no ability to answer. Symptoms of manganism, resulting from exposure to manganese, have been described in medical literature as similar to those of Parkinson’s disease. The officials did their best to project empathy and reassurance, but the community wasn’t buying it.

“None of you have respected any of us,” said Jade Mazon—cofounder of the Rebel Bells, a social-justice-oriented girls’ collective on the southeast side—to the panelists. “We’ve been living with this since before we were born, we’ve been invisible, and no, you don’t know what it’s like to be in our shoes. Come live here, next door to me for 20 years and raise your children on half-assed everything. Half-assed everything, that’s what we get: half-assed schools, sidewalks, streets, whatever it is, we are invisible.”

But not anymore, Mazon concluded. “You know why you’re sitting there? because we have come together as a community. We’re proposing solutions.”

Not content to wait for the government officials to conduct their soil sampling, Mazon announced that a coalition of community groups is already developing a partnership with the University of Cincinnati to begin studying the possible effects of manganese on the people in this neighborhood. The same researchers who documented manganese exposure in communities near other S.H. Bell facilities in eastern Ohio will begin to work on the East Side this summer. The EPA sued the company last year over its manganese storage practices near three Ohio towns.

Multiple people also asked questions about the safety of some 28 workers at S.H. Bell’s facility. The company previously told the Reader that manganese levels on the property are “a minuscule fraction . . . of levels that are likely to lead to manganism.” The officials told residents that worker safety concerns fall under the jurisdiction of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, not the city’s public health department, EPA, or CDC. No representatives of OSHA were present at the meeting.

At the close of the meeting, Olga Bautista of the Southeast Environmental Task Force delivered an impassioned call for the officials to force S.H. Bell to stop handling manganese at the facility while the health impacts of chronic exposure to the heavy metal can be determined.

“One of the hardest parts for me is that no one can tell us what the health impacts may be from the manganese exposure,” she said. “We are asking the city to issue a moratorium on manganese handling here on the southeast side.” She also chastised Mayor Rahm Emanuel for spending millions on redeveloping former industrial sites along the Chicago River on the north side while ignoring redevelopment and cleanup in the Calumet River area. “It is so unfair. We can see right through what the priorities of the city have been.”

A section of S.H. Bell's property line (left) runs parallel to houses on E. 103rd.
A section of S.H. Bell’s property line (left) runs parallel to houses on E. 103rd.Credit: Maya Dukmasova

Bautista called for free medical clinics to be set up in the neighborhood, with staff qualified to evaluate their conditions. “We’re asking for the pie in the sky because we deserve it,” Bautista said. “This is the backbone of this city, these are the nurses, the teachers, the laborers who built this city, and it is unfair that we’re also tasked to call these bad players out—that should not be our job.”

Bautista’s last words were for the EPA officials quietly watching the scene: “This is morally wrong, that you guys have known that manganese were here and you were investigating the same company in Ohio and you didn’t put two and two together,” she said. “You’re telling us you need more time? Shame on you, and shame on the EPA for not doing what they had to do, which is shut them down.”

John Holden, who has been handling media relations for S.H. Bell, sat in the audience taking copious notes, but didn’t identify himself when community members demanded to know whether the company’s representatives were present at the meeting. Confronted on his way out of the building, Holden told the Reader he had no comment about anything he’d heard that evening. Asked why he didn’t come forward when people wanted to know if anyone from the company was present, Holden said, “I’m not a representative of S.H. Bell at the meeting.”

As residents trickled out into the night, an acrid smell hung in the air outside. A gust of wind seemed to clear it, as a few men and women puzzled over what it might have been. “They come and go,” mused Peggy Salazar of the transient odor. “It could be so many things.” A lifelong resident and director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, Salazar said community members often try to report strange smells wafting from surrounding industrial facilities like the Cargill plant in Hammond, Indiana. “By the time an inspector comes out it’s gone.” She added that the air quality prevents friends and relatives from visiting. “We can’t enjoy our community or have guests—they get alarmed and they want to leave.”

As speculation over the origin of the smell continued, Salazar waved her hand at the vast track of empty land across the street from the community center on Avenue O. Tough brush and grass are already growing tall, and the looming mass of an industrial hangar is still visible on the other side. “It’s a dying community, nobody wants to come here, nobody wants to redevelop,” Salazar observed. “Look at all this empty space we have—you think Amazon would want to come here? Heck no.”

Though the crowd thinned out by the end of the meeting, some residents remained till the end, brandishing homemade signs and calling government officials to shut down S.H. Bell's manganese storage and transportation operations
Though the crowd thinned out by the end of the meeting, some residents remained till the end, brandishing homemade signs and calling government officials to shut down S.H. Bell’s manganese storage and transportation operationsCredit: Maya Dukmasova