By Ben Joravsky

Most people would have fled the battle to get rid of the Robbins incinerator as soon as they saw the wall of cash and clout aligned against them. But apparently Jeff Tangel, Gloria Scott, and their many south-side and south-suburban compatriots have abnormal amounts of patience and perseverance, for after eight years they’re close to winning.

The incinerator is still running, though its operators have lost a multimillion-dollar state subsidy, and the facility’s been hit with a lawsuit charging racial discrimination and a notice from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency alleging that dangerous pollutants have been emitted illegally.

Its opponents are far too realistic to start celebrating its demise. “When this fight started I thought it wasn’t going to take long to get rid of such a patently stupid idea,” says Tangel, of the South Cook County Environmental Action Coalition. “Boy, was I naive about how government works–or how it doesn’t work–for people like us. I’m not naive anymore. We’ve been in the belly of the beast, we’ve seen how government works. And let me tell you, man, it’s scary–far scarier than we ever imagined.”

The fight that united residents of different races and incomes and on both sides of the city’s southern border was the result of a proposal unveiled in 1990. According to its original operators, the Reading Energy Company of Philadelphia, the incinerator would divert tons of garbage from overflowing landfills, generate energy by burning waste, create well-paid jobs, and deliver tax revenues to cash-starved Robbins.

The company lined up early support from almost every elected official in and around Robbins, most notably Mayor Irene Brodie (who didn’t return my calls). In the early days Reading Energy (which has since sold its interest to Foster Wheeler, a New Jersey corporation) said the town would receive as much as $2 million in revenue from the incinerator, which would employ as many as 100 people.

Reading (and later Foster Wheeler) also repeatedly brought out scientists and engineers to testify that the incinerator would be a state-of-the-art facility and would pose no threat to residents’ health or the environment. “Don’t take our garbage to Michigan. Don’t take our garbage downstate,” boomed state senator William Shaw at one early meeting, where supporters wore big yellow YIMBY (“Yes in My Backyard”) buttons. “Keep it right here in Robbins.”

But from the first public hearing held back in March 1990 it was obvious that many residents remained unconvinced. For Scott, the incinerator was yet another blow against a town she saw as “a land of hope and opportunity for working-class black folks” like her parents, who’d moved there from the south side in the early 60s.

“Robbins is like a small town from rural Illinois right next to a big city,” says Scott, a mail carrier in Chicago. “My dad built a house in a field next to a creek. We had a big yard to play in, and we had a tree house, and we ice-skated in the winter and canoed in the summer. But right across the creek is the Clark oil refinery, which is so big and gassy. One of its big round tankers blew up. It shook our windows, and we ran outside to watch it burn.”

Opposition was also strong in Mount Greenwood and Beverly, two relatively upscale and predominantly white communities on the city’s far south side. “No one around here wanted it,” says Tangel, a trader at the Chicago Board Options Exchange. “All you have to do is think about those prevailing winds coming out of the southwest and bringing in God only knows what kinds of pollution.”

Within a few weeks of that first hearing, several meetings were held at the house of Mary Martin, a Beverly resident, and the South Cook County Environmental Action Coalition was formed. In 1992 the group persuaded the state’s attorney general to file suit against the Reading project on the grounds that the company “failed to notify 90 of the 101 property owners within 25 feet of the site” as required by law. In 1993 Attorney General Roland Burris dropped the case in exchange for an agreement from Reading that the incinerator would emit fewer pollutants than the EPA required.

But residents didn’t want any incinerator. “I have to admit I sort of fell off a cliff on this thing,” says Tangel. “I read everything by Greenpeace and Citizens for a Better Environment, and we brought out experts such as Dr. Paul Connett, a chemistry professor at Saint Lawrence University. The more I read, the angrier I got, because there’s no such thing as a facility that can guarantee against pollution. Epidemiology is such a soft science, anyone with lots of money can hire any scientist to come up with a study that says what they want. Meanwhile, I’m reading studies about the fallout from these things possibly causing sperm count to fall.” He laughs. “Someone said, ‘Don’t turn the land of Lincoln into the land of shrinkin’.’ At meetings we’d be joking about the correlation between pollution and penis size, and the women would say, ‘Oh, that’s my husband’s problem.'”

In the early 1990s the coalition decided to go after the “retail rate” law, a state subsidy that would make the incinerator, which wouldn’t open until mid 1997, profitable for its owners. The law, passed in 1988, would have required Commonwealth Edison and other energy providers to buy electricity generated by incinerators at above-market prices. The state would have then paid Com Ed the difference–about a $20 million annual subsidy for Robbins.

“What the boosters say makes no sense,” says Scott. “They said the state’s going to pump about $20 million [per year] into it in return for 20 jobs and $2 million for Robbins. I thought, ‘Dang, if y’all want to help us so much, just give us the $20 million and forget about the middleman.’ I mean, an out-of-state corporation gets the money–and we get the incinerator. Thanks for nothing.”

Within a few years of the law’s passage almost two dozen incinerators had been proposed throughout Illinois, all intended to take advantage of the subsidy. “We had more incinerators than any other state,” says Tangel. “And why not? The taxpayers were paying for them. I figured, ‘Oh, this is easy. We’ll win. What legislator in his right mind’s going to vote for a huge subsidy for waste incinerators, which no community wants anyway?’ Well, guess what? The whole world was upside-down–nothing went the way you’d expect. You’d think our closest allies would be the legislators closest to Robbins. But no. Shaw was strongly in favor of the incinerator, as were most of his fellow members of the legislative black caucus. We’d tell them, ‘It could endanger the health of black people.’ And they’d say, ‘We need the jobs.’ And we’d say, ‘But it’s only going to create a few jobs.'”

The city of Chicago was also against the coalition members, because Mayor Daley wanted to keep the retail-rate law to help crank up an incinerator on the northwest side. Without Daley’s support, committeeman Tom Hynes and other bosses from the Beverly-based 19th Ward couldn’t defeat the incinerator. And house speaker Michael Madigan didn’t want to offend the black legislative caucus. So the coalition was left to depend on conservative Republicans from distant communities. “I remember this archconservative state rep explaining to me the virtues of burning paper,” says Tangel. “This is heresy for our group. I’m sitting there nodding, holding back all the arguments, because I needed his vote. I said, ‘Are you with us?’ He looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘Of course. No one in his right mind can afford to subsidize incinerators to this degree.'”

It was an up-and-down struggle for more than four years of legislative lobbying, says Tangel. “The other side had expensive lobbyists who knew how the system worked. We’d win a vote in one house only to lose in the other. At one point I thought we had them. We had busloads of people from the south region working the floor. We had targeted all these legislators who had given us firm commitments. This lobbyist from the chemical industry tells me, ‘Nah, they think they’ve got you beat on a structured roll call.’ Translated this means they had the whole thing orchestrated so all the legislators who feel they have to vote against the incinerator will do so, knowing that it’s gonna win anyway. That way they satisfy us and the industry. Sure enough, I watched as our so-called targets let us get steamrolled. Oh, they voted our way, but they didn’t fight for us like they said they would. I was so angry I wanted to hire a guy in a pink gorilla suit to run on the floor and make a mockery of the system that made a mockery out of us. It was dead from the beginning, and they only let us think we could make changes.”

Finally in 1996 the senate and house voted to repeal the subsidy and Governor Jim Edgar signed the bill. No money was ever paid, and without the subsidy, all the proposed incinerators dropped out–except for the one in Robbins. It opened in June 1997.

How much longer it will operate is anyone’s guess. In August 1997 Kevin Carmody of the Daily Southtown reported that the incinerator was losing millions of dollars. Earlier this year the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a discrimination lawsuit against Foster Wheeler’s construction subsidiary, alleging that four black workers were laid off after complaining about “grossly obscene and crudely drawn racist graffiti” that were “plastered all over the site’s portable toilets.”

Meanwhile resentment in Robbins is growing against the incinerator, which has created only 80 jobs (it’s not clear how many of them are held by Robbins residents). In addition, the EPA recently alleged that the incinerator had violated air-pollution rules 779 times in the six months of 1997 that it was running. “The majority of the violations were failing to operate the burner at the temperatures necessary to prevent the release of toxic pollutants such as dioxin, furans, and mercury,” Carmody wrote in an April 9 story on the EPA allegations. “If the burner temperature drops too low, for example, certain chemicals aren’t destroyed.”

An employee of Foster Wheeler, whose spokesman didn’t return my phone call, told the Sun-Times, “I feel the facility has been operating both properly and safely and is one of the lowest-emitting facilities in the world.” The company is now suing the state to recover the subsidy lost when the retail-rate law was repealed.

“The ironies never cease,” says Tangel. “You have a ‘state-of-the-art’ incinerator that’s been polluting since it fired up, according to the EPA. And you have a project that’s supposed to be a boon for a poor black town–and the construction company winds up in court on charges of racial harassment. All you can do is laugh and keep on fighting.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jeff Tangel, Gloria Scott photo by Robert Drea.