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On the face of it, at least, it seemed like a straightforward, sensible idea: Chicago would pass a law to make it easier to reuse soil and rubble dug up during construction projects so it doesn’t have to be trucked to dumps hours away. The plan, proposed by city officials three months ago, would cut greenhouse gas emissions, preserve precious landfill space, and potentially lower the time and cost of construction work.
But instead of sailing through the City Council like so many other initiatives advanced by the Daley administration, the soil and rubble reuse ordinance has been attacked by an unusual coalition of environmentalists and waste haulers, greeted with skepticism by embattled aldermen, and repeatedly pulled off the table for retooling by city officials.
They’re going to try again next week.
“We think there is such great benefit to this—that’s why we’ve spent so much time on it,” says Suzanne Malec-McKenna, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Environment. “The perception is that with this we could bring polluted soil into our communities, but the reality is that this is the soil you’d find in any backyard in Chicago.”
Malec-McKenna and the department have been working with state environmental officials for more than three years to come up with a plan to safely reuse soil and rubble in Chicago. Currently it’s illegal because more than a century of heavy industrial activity has left the top layer of soil here contaminated to various degrees with PAHs, lead, and other toxins.
Under the city’s proposal, the dirt dug up through city road, sewer, school, library, and park construction projects could simply be taken to another construction site where it’s needed—as long as tests prove it’s no more contaminated than what’s already there. Malec-McKenna says in these instances it makes no sense to truck in “virgin” soil from rural areas that has itself been exposed to decades of vehicle emissions, pesticides, and other chemicals. “There just really isn’t a god-and-glaciers quality soil anywhere anymore,” she said.
Maybe so, but as I wrote in February, when the ordinance first came up before the council’s environment and energy committee, aldermen fretted about the possibility of polluted soil being moved into their wards–and bravely declared that they didn’t want to take the blame if the community protested. Several noted the troubling history of polluted waste being dumped in poor, minority communities; others demanded that they get greater oversight power.
Turns out there was a reason for the abruptly bold stand. Aldermen on the committee had already been pestered to stop the proposal by some vehement opponents who called it the “toxic dirt ordinance.”
Among them were representatives of groups like Chicago Urban Initiative and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, which has led fights against polluted park space in their south side neighborhood.
Kim Wasserman, LVEJO’s executive director, said environmentalists were initially wary because the city didn’t solicit their input before drafting the proposal. When they finally got a chance to review it, its language about how exactly the testing would be done seemed so vague and imprecise—a draft of the legislation said initial screening would consist of checking to see if the soil exhibits “visual or olfactory signs of impact”— that it set off additional “alarm bells.”
“They keep saying we’re in new territory and we’re setting a precedent, but if we are, we need to make damn sure it’s safe,” Wasserman said.
The proposal was also blasted, not surprisingly, by the country’s biggest waste haulers. Though haulers currently make money from shipping and landfilling unrecycled dirt and rubble, one of their paid consultants told aldermen that he opposed the proposal for environmental reasons: “I don’t find the testing adequate, and I don’t find the oversight adequate.”
That became the theme of a full-on opposition campaign funded by the waste industry. In the following weeks, waste haulers turned up the pressure on aldermen on the environment committee, barraging their offices with robocalls opposing the “toxic dirt” proposal on the grounds that it could be dangerous. Their campaign had an impact—the ordinance was placed on the agenda for the committee’s April 21 meeting, but the environment department decided to table it shortly before meeting convened because it clearly didn’t have the support to pass.
“They didn’t tell anyone about it beforehand—we got downtown for the meeting and found out it was pulled from the agenda,” Wasserman said.
Malec-McKenna maintains that she wasn’t bothered by opposition from the waste industry. “They spent several hundred thousand dollars on this, which is a great honor, because it proves that this is a great benefit to the city,” she said. “The waste haulers have never been at the forefront of environmental issues.”
Over the last few weeks suggestions from environmental and community groups have made the proposal stronger, Malec-McKenna says. She adds that her department will post a fact sheet about it on its Web site sometime this week. “We are trying to make this as transparent as possible.”
On Tuesday city officials met with environmental activists to try to hash out more changes that might win their support. As a result, the latest version of the ordinance includes clearer provisions for notifying aldermen of dirt exchanges in their wards and more details on when and where the recycled material can be used.
That’s still not enough to win Wasserman’s backing. She said she hasn’t been shown data proving that the city and state’s standards will prevent the reuse of soil with harmful levels of toxins, and she’s going to press aldermen to include a provision requiring a community notification process for any dirt exchange.
“Where is the proof?” she said. “It makes us very leery, especially when you’re talking about dirt that would be used for schools, playgrounds, and libraries.”
Malec-McKenna says only soil that tests in the upper level of cleanliness would be used in places where humans might come into contact with it. “Anything used at a school, you could eat it,” she said.
As for Wasserman’s objections: “My understanding is that they’re going to stay neutral. I didn’t expect groups working on environmental justice to have a cheerleading session for this”–she said she understands that they’ve been offered false promises too many times. “But I’m happy as long as they don’t still think this is going to dump toxic waste on their communities.”
And the waste haulers? My call to an industry leader wasn’t returned, but Malec-McKenna doesn’t sound too worried. “They’re going to lose business,” she said.
Wasserman emphasizes that she’s fully behind the goals of cutting the use of trucking and landfilling. “The concept behind it is great,” she said. “But we’re not comfortable with the rush to get it in place.”
Last week Tribune columnist John Kass speculated that a state bill relaxing the rules for disposing of construction debris would be helpful to a connected city contractor as plans move forward for work on an Olympic Village. There’s no chance the city is pushing the soil and rubble ordinance to save money–or spend it with the right people–on Olympics-related construction, is there?
“This has nothing to do with the Olympics,” Malec-McKenna said. “This is really about everyday construction projects around the city.”
Department officials are going to brief aldermen about the revised proposal on Thursday. If that goes well, they’re going to bring it before the environment committee next Tuesday, the 12th, and hope it gets a full council vote on the 13th. Aldermen may want to be ready for more robocalls.