There’s no nice way to say it. A growing number of Chicagoans believe that the city government is using their tax dollars to poison them–by burning their garbage. The Chicago Northwest Waste-to-Energy Facility, at 740 N. Kilbourn near Chicago and Cicero, is a “death machine,” according to Cook County Commissioner Danny Davis. A “monster,” says Lillian Drummond of the South Austin Coalition Community Council. The Center for Neighborhood Technology, in an October report, merely calls it dirty, expensive, and superfluous.
In the spring of 1993, a city- and EPA-supervised emissions test found that one of the incinerator’s four boilers was sending 5.7 pounds of lead per hour into the air. Multiply that times three (the number of boilers then in operation), times 24 hours a day, times 365 days a year, and you come up with a possible 149,796 pounds of lead per year. That’s more than 60 times the amount of lead that all Cook County industries together reported releasing in 1992.
Neither the rhetoric nor the numbers impress the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Environment, Henry Henderson (no relation). The incinerator is safe, he says, but like an old car it has to be babied and soon must be overhauled or scrapped. If the city spends the $150 million required to rebuild it, he says the result will be even safer. He thinks the feasible alternatives to rebuilding the incinerator may well be worse.
What about the 150,000 pounds of lead? “In 1993, we measured a malfunction which we reported,” says assistant commissioner William Abolt. “Since then, the city has invested nearly $1 million in upgrading the precipitators [which remove particulate dust and attached pollutants, including lead]. Recent [July 1994] testing shows the particulate levels are at half the allowable [EPA] standards.”
Last summer’s tests also measured lead emissions again, but using a different method (see sidebar for details). The results imply that the incinerator is now putting only 1,333 to 19,500 pounds of lead into the air annually. The exact amount depends on how many boilers are running, and how much ink and plastic and solder and old paint are in the residential garbage the incinerator burns.
The Westside Alliance for a Safe Toxic-free Environment (WASTE)–a coalition of 25 environmental, health, and community groups opposed to the incinerator–doesn’t trust the tests. Its leaders still use the “150,000 pounds” figure from 1993, even though city officials accuse them of lying, and even though the newer numbers still make the incinerator the biggest single lead emitter in Cook County.
“Henry Henderson told the Tribune last December that incineration had been a good option for the city,” says WASTE executive director Fred Friedman incredulously. “Yet we know that for 24 years it’s been putting poison into the air. We now know it’s a disaster–and he says it was a good option! That strikes me as totally missing the point of his job.”
Actually, that comment probably overstates the degree of respect and communication between the Chicago Department of Environment and incinerator opponents. Henderson regards WASTE as a bunch of true believers who insist on zero pollution and are unwilling to weigh imperfect alternatives in the real world. WASTE supporters tend to see Henderson and Abolt as good guys whose bosses have already decided to rebuild the incinerator–leaving them to rationalize a done deal with more than a whiff of environmental racism about it.
Is this another big-money City Hall project with a feisty grass-roots opposition? Yes, but the usual categories don’t fit. The only sure thing about the Northwest Incinerator is that anyone who says it’s simple is polluting your mental environment.
For one thing, it’s not the Daley administration against the independents: 28th Ward alderman Ed Smith, no Daley clone, says he’s confident that a rebuilt incinerator “will cause no harm to the community.” It’s in his ward. “I have more alarm about the hundreds of thousands of people who are cigarette smokers than I do for this facility that will be run by people who know what they’re doing.”
It’s not jobs against clean air, because both the city and WASTE say we can have both. And it’s not hysterical neighbors against rational bureaucrats, because both sides say that the incinerator should not be rebuilt until all the economic and environmental pros and cons are figured out. But neither side knows a whole lot about the effects of burning garbage.
Most of all, it’s not the story of good recycling versus evil incineration. Not all waste can be reused or recycled. At the end of the day, someone, somehow, has to do something with what’s left over.
Nevertheless, as a symbol of evil, the incinerator does pretty well. It’s a plain metal box standing alone in a grungy industrial area on the far west side, surrounded by a high chain-link fence. Instead of horns, it has two 250-foot smokestacks made of cream-colored bricks that darken near the top. When 150 demonstrators gathered at its entrance on March 14–including members of Greenpeace, the South Austin Coalition Community Council, Westside Health Authority, Northeast Austin Organization, and other WASTE member groups–their signs and chants reflected this symbolism: “Lead Kills–So Does the Northwest Incinerator.” “There Are No Safe Levels.” “Shut It Down.” “God Recycles, the Devil Burns.”
But in 1971, God was doing the burning. When it was built under Mayor Daley the Elder, the incinerator stood for forward-thinking environmentalism. The city’s old incinerators–at Fullerton and Ashland (Lincoln Park), 103rd and Doty (southeast side), and 34th and Lawndale (southwest side)–could not meet the standards of the 1967 Air Quality Act, and were all shut down during the 1970s. (Chicago burned a million tons of garbage in 1972; nowadays it burns around 400,000 tons, roughly a third of what the city’s garbage trucks pick up.)
For the new incinerator, “Chicago officials eventually selected a water-walled technology that utilized electrostatic precipitators, the most advanced air pollution control technology at the time,” according to ardent environmentalists Louis Blumberg and Robert Gottlieb in their 1989 book War on Waste: Can America Win Its Battle With Garbage? Part of the Northwest Incinerator’s $23 million cost was subsidized by the federal government, which hoped to use it “as a demonstration project to establish guidelines for incineration.” Its “water walls”–banks of pipes around each furnace to transform the heat from burning garbage into steam–were, if anything, ahead of their time. After the mid-1970s energy crisis hit, the incinerator was refitted to export steam to nearby factories and given its current official name, one that only a bureaucrat could love: “Waste-to-Energy Facility.”
In 1971 it was a Cadillac, not a death machine. But even Cadillacs wear out. Even if the Northwest Incinerator could meet new EPA standards mandated under the 1990 Clean Air Act, city officials acknowledge that they must either refurbish it or junk it for reasons of age alone. The Northwest Incinerator as we know it, and as we have breathed its output, will soon be shut down. Both sides nevertheless agree that its history can tell us something about what its future–if any–should be.
Whether this Cadillac got the careful driving and preventive maintenance it needed along the way is anybody’s guess. There are a few insider stories to suggest that it did not. One frequent visitor years ago recalls seeing a pallet piled high with old lead-acid truck batteries pushed into the incinerator. Another says, “I’ve seen tricycles, bedsprings go through there–things you wouldn’t believe.”
From outside the fence, the evidence is at best circumstantial:
“I never had allergies until five years ago,” Northeast Austin Organization’s Mary Volpe told the March 14 rally. She lives about a mile northwest of the stacks. “Now I have to buy Benadryl every day.”
Joan Soldwisch, who lives less than a mile northeast of the incinerator, reports the presence of “black particulate”–“my daughter got hives from sitting down on an outdoor chair” covered with it. She’s lived on the west side since the 60s, but has seen a change over the years that seems to correlate with the aging of the incinerator. “It’s a difference in the house dust. When you sweep the floor and walls, it just gets dirty again. In Wisconsin it’s different. The dirt is not dirty.”
“We lived in Logan Square,” says Jim Slama, publisher of Conscious Choice, a bimonthly “Journal of Ecology & Natural Living.” “Every time the wind blew out of the southwest [from the direction of the incinerator about three miles away] my wife got violently ill. That’s when I really started getting mad.” Still mad, he says Henry Henderson should be fired “and replaced by a real environmentalist.”
But tracing illnesses back to the incinerator is not as easy as holding your finger up to the breeze. It’s located in the southwest corner of the Humboldt Park neighborhood, just east of Austin and just north of West Garfield Park. These areas are not especially healthy, according to city health department figures for 1991-’93. Austin and West Garfield Park have some of the city’s highest rates of infant mortality and cancer death. But this bad news is more likely due to lack of health care and other poverty- related problems than to incinerator emissions, especially since figures for Humboldt Park and other communities near the incinerator are lower. When I called the Illinois Department of Public Health’s cancer registry, a spokesperson reminded me that cancer is not one disease but many different diseases, and that only about 6 percent of the total number of cancer cases are “actually connected to environmental risk factors.”
The incinerator is a likelier culprit in the case of lead poisoning. Small amounts of lead (above 9 micrograms per deciliter) can cause learning problems and attention deficit disorder in children; in very high doses, lead can cause convulsions and death. Elevated lead levels are widespread in the blood of children living in Austin, West Garfield Park, Humboldt Park, and West Town. But so are old houses with peeling lead-based paint, the most common way small children ingest the metal. Could incinerator emissions be at fault too?
Conscious Choice’s Jim Slama was able to find a few young children with elevated lead levels in their blood whose homes don’t contain lead paint. One of them, two-and-a-half-year-old Michelle Morgan, was featured in an uncompromising advertisement WASTE placed in the March 10 Reader, headlined, “Their Heads Are Full Of Dreams. Unfortunately, Their Brains Are Full Of Lead.”
Michelle lives with her parents and grandparents about three-quarters of a mile northwest of the incinerator. The brick house doesn’t even have lead paint on its window frames, and according to her mother, Michelle has never drunk city tap water (which can contain lead from old supply pipes). Yet the lead level in her blood has been as high as 25, where it can affect reaction times and sensations. It’s now down to 10, a level described as “mild” poisoning, sometimes associated with learning disabilities.
It turns out that Michelle enjoys rooting in the yard next to the house. “I can’t grow grass there,” says her grandmother, “it’s always dug up.” Loyola University undergraduates enrolled in Chemistry 310 (“Instrumental Methods of Analysis”) checked the yard for lead last fall. EPA considers soils with 50 grams of lead per million grams of soil to be “contaminated.” Michelle’s favorite patch contains 1,850 grams of lead per million grams of soil; elsewhere in the yard the level is “only” 150.
Where did it come from? Alanah Fitch, the Loyola chemistry professor whose students did the measuring, says it’s “not at all clear to me” that it comes from the incinerator. Climatological records she obtained for O’Hare show that winds from the southeast (from the direction of the incinerator) are not common.
Could the soil have been contaminated by old paint chips from when the window frames were scraped and repainted decades ago? Or by incinerator dust washing off the outside of the house? Fitch says it might actually be possible to find out, since the four main lead-producing areas on earth produce different isotopes of the element and were used at different times. If the lead in the ground turns out to be mostly one isotope, chances are it came from a single application of paint. On the other hand, if the lead in the ground is a mixture of different isotopes, then the finger of blame would point to the incinerator, which burns garbage of all ages.
Of course, incinerator opponents, including Michelle’s grandmother Phyllis Rousseau, are not waiting around to find out. “We’re pretty sure there’s a connection,” says Fred Friedman. “Could we prove it in a court of law to the satisfaction of Newt Gingrich? Probably not. But we know these are bad things.” Even if it were shown that as little as 10 percent of the lead in Michelle’s yard came from the incinerator, that would still be triple EPA limits all by itself. The incinerator should be shut down, they argue, for the same reason lead was banned from gasoline: it’s already done too much damage, and it’s not needed anyway.
WASTE starts with sick people and tries to blame the incinerator, so far without clear success. The city starts with the incinerator itself and tries to show that it’s blameless. This defense is at least as feeble as WASTE’s attack.
First and worst, the incinerator has been inspected only four times in the last 15 years (1987, 1992, 1993, 1994). The city was notified before these few inspections so the incinerator was running at its best when the tests were conducted–and in 1993 it failed anyway. There’s also evidence that air clean enough to pass current EPA particulate standards can still kill some people.
Here’s how it works. The city hires a testing company to measure how the incinerator is operating, including its output of the two pollutants for which there are now EPA emission standards: carbon monoxide and particulates (dust, including particles too small to see). State and federal EPA officials monitor the testing. In 1993 the city asked the company to also test for a number of pollutants that the EPA does not now regulate but soon will, including mercury, lead, hydrochloric acid, and two kinds of dioxin. (The current standards don’t completely overlook these; most are carried on particulates, and the assumption has been that if you keep the dust down you’ll control the other bad things too.)
In 1992, the incinerator failed just one of several tests. Boiler two (the north smokestack) was putting out 0.10 grains of dust per dry standard cubic foot, a bit over the EPA standard of 0.08. In 1993, it did much worse–if dust were booze, the incinerator would have been dead drunk on test day. All four boilers failed, and failed badly, averaging double the legal limit even after boiler two got a three-day reprieve because its pollution controls weren’t working right. By far the worst result (0.29, more than triple the legal limit) came when the testing contractor measured boiler two’s emissions during “a soot-blowing cycle to simulate normal operating conditions”–a description that implies the other tests were conducted under abnormally good conditions.
These ugly findings provoked the U.S. EPA to serve the city with a 15-count “notice of violation” on September 30, 1993. The matter has since been turned over to the U.S. Department of Justice for prosecution; federal attorneys have met with west-side community groups to discuss what they would like to see in a settlement. (“The exciting thing,” says Fred Friedman, “is that they came out to the community to talk,” something WASTE wishes city officials would do more of. “That’s quite unusual, and they should get credit.”)
The city responded by shutting down two boilers at a time and spending close to $1 million repairing the incinerator’s electrostatic precipitators. It also established what could be called speed limits on the rate of burning, on the theory that the faster the incinerator burns the less time the precipitators have to remove dust before it shoots out the smokestacks.
“We were giving it too much oxygen,” says the city’s William Abolt. “It was like blowing into a pile of dust. You need to know the capabilities of your pollution control systems. This reflects a fairly typical learning pattern with these things.” In 1971, “this facility was a response to the Clean Air Act, which required fairly sophisticated controls. This [new speed limit] is a further development–don’t just have the equipment, but understand how to operate it.” Evidently the learning curve was still pretty steep after 23 years, because as late as February 23, 1994, readings showed emissions at 0.67 grains per cubic foot, more than eight times the legal limit.
On July 12 through 15, 1994, a new testing contractor found that the incinerator’s particulate pollution was down to an impressively low 0.03, less than half the permissible level. These good results drew little news coverage, but they did persuade the Illinois EPA in October to give the city a three-year permit to continue operating the burner.
That’s fine if your job is to make sure the right papers go in the right files in Springfield. It may or may not be fine if you live and breathe between Cicero Avenue and Lake Michigan. Do preannounced, once-a-year tests tell us anything about what the incinerator does the rest of the time? Does the spic-and-span apartment your mother visits once a year tell anything about how you keep house the rest of the time?
Assistant environment commissioner Abolt says there’s more to it than that. “Soap burns real clean, but you can’t bring in extra loads of soap to burn for inspection. You have to burn the same garbage, and sort it and mix it the same as any other day.” In addition, he points out, “Our permit requires daily monitoring of steam production and oxygen levels,” and inspectors have access to those records. The plant is supposed to operate in a “compliance zone” between minimum and maximum speed limits, so that it’s hot enough to burn the garbage but not burning so fast that the precipitators can’t catch the dust on its way up the stack. As Abolt tells it, the test is more like mom getting to see the odometer records on your vacuum cleaner.
Until six weeks ago, however, there was no way for the inspectors to know how the pollution controls really work on the other 364 days of the year. Now–thanks in part to WASTE’s request–the city has installed 24-hour opacity monitors on the two stacks for quick checks on particulate concentrations. Their record, which Abolt says will be available to the public, will provide the first realistic day-to-day monitoring of incinerator pollution.
“I’m not going to believe any test they do” unless it shows bad results, insists Conscious Choice’s Jim Slama. That’s not as biased as it sounds: anyone is more believable when he criticizes himself. But it is something of a stretch: Slama has to assume that the city runs the incinerator dirty and knew how to make its test results look clean in 1992 and 1994–but somehow totally forgot how to do this in 1993, at a cost of nearly $1 million plus whatever the meter reads once the federal lawsuit is settled! It seems simpler to believe that the city got caught trying to run an old beater too hard, and fixed it up–and that the current test results are somewhat better than everyday readings would be.
Still, it’s a complicated machine burning an unpredictable mix of fuel; there is no guarantee that it will be run right every day. And past mistakes weigh heavily on opponents’ minds. “I wouldn’t even trust Harold Washington to run something like this,” says Center for Neighborhood Technology engineer Bill Eyring. (That may be a reasonable statement, but he’s an odd one to make it. CNT campaigned to terminate Commonwealth Edison’s electricity franchise in 1991 and have the city take over the job itself. If it was OK for the city to run half a dozen nuclear power plants four years ago, why is it not OK for it to run one incinerator, and test it honestly, now?)
But just for a moment, let’s be utopian. Let’s assume that the Northwest Incinerator has always met EPA air emissions standards. Would that make it safe to live next to? Probably not, according to Ron Burke, associate director of the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago (“When You Can’t Breathe, Nothing Else Matters”). Last year the ALA, a member group of WASTE, reported on a study it had commissioned, which found that even when Cook County air averages as little as one-third the current air quality standard for particulates, the risk of death countywide rises about 2.5 percent above what it would be at zero pollution. “There are about 108 deaths a day, so that means another 3 or so on those days.” When the air is at two-thirds the legal standard, deaths are up about 5 percent. Harvard’s Douglas Dockery and others have found similar results throughout the U.S. (In fairness, Dockery also told the New York Times March 10 that this is a “fairly low level of hazard” in that “smoking might reduce your life expectancy by 10 years or more, and particle pollution might reduce your life span by a year or so.”)
“These are premature deaths,” says Burke, “people who already have risk factors” like asthma, old age, or lung disease. “They’re usually not healthy young adults, but they are losing years from their lives.” Burke is of the opinion that even scientifically compelling studies like these could not survive Republican insistence on cost-benefit analysis.
And even if they could, in today’s political climate, there’s less reason than ever to think that federal regulators will keep cities’ quest for cheap garbage disposal within the bounds of public health. Joanna Hoelscher of Citizens for a Better Environment worries that the EPA may make the new Clean Air Act regulations for incinerators more lenient in an effort to save the Clean Air Act from congressional evisceration.
Two years ago the incinerator was (at least briefly) emitting 150,000 pounds of lead a year. Today it’s supposedly emitting only 10,000 pounds or so. If the incinerator is rebuilt it will probably not be allowed to emit more than 567 pounds of lead. Good news, right? Plus the city has just installed 24-hour smoke opacity monitors, enabling neighbors to keep better track of the incinerator than ever before.
So why is WASTE making all this fuss? Why was there protest and not dancing in the streets March 14?
Because the argument between WASTE and the Chicago Department of Environment only seems to be about pounds of lead, or about the processing cost per ton of garbage, or about public hearings. It’s a collision of two dreams.
Henderson and Abolt dream of rational waste management and bet hedging in an uncertain world. They see Chicagoans composting and recycling what stuff there’s a market for–37 percent of their garbage by 1996, and perhaps some day as much as half–while experts calculate the cleanest and cheapest ways to deal with the remainder. Since Congress and the packaging industry may make that job harder at any moment, a prudent city keeps homegrown options (like recycling and incineration) on hand in case there’s a sudden ban on interstate shipment of garbage for burial. It’s a little cleaner and nicer city than we have now, but not dramatically so.
WASTE dreams of a city in which community organizations, garbage workers, private businesses, not-for-profits, and city bureaucrats are all mobilized to achieve an 80 percent recycling goal. At the same time, manufacturers are pressured to make less packaging, fewer disposables, and little or nothing that might emit lead, mercury, or chlorine. It’s a city where our relationships with each other and with the earth are quite different than they are now.
Because their dreams are different, city officials and WASTE supporters don’t always mean the same thing even when they agree. WASTE does not want a cleaner incinerator, it wants an incinerator that emits no pollutants at all–which is to say no incinerator at all. In its opinion any amount of pollution is too much. “When you’re hitting your head against the wall 20 times a minute,” says Fred Friedman, “it’s good to cut down to 10 times. But it’s best to quit doing it altogether.”
Citizens for a Better Environment (a member of WASTE) lists some of the grisly possible effects of incinerator-generated pollutants. Once deposited in women’s bones, lead doesn’t stay there; it “is released from bone tissue right along with calcium during pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause . . . re-expos[ing] a woman’s brain and other vital organs to the devastating effects of lead poisoning.” Mercury accumulates through the food chain and “can cause serious neurological disorders and degenerative kidney problems.” As for organochlorines, “dioxin is one of the most toxic substances known to science. Not only is it a potent carcinogen, it can also disrupt the endocrine system of humans and wildlife.” And few studies consider the combined effects of people being exposed to all these contaminants at the same time.
The point is not that the incinerator produces dangerous doses of these and other pollutants–although it may–but that any additional amount of them is unacceptable. If the west side has suffered from “25 years of poison” from these and other chemicals, why should it have to take any more?
Henry Henderson knows all this. But he also knows that those pollutants are in the garbage and that wishing won’t make them go away. Where are all those blue garbage trucks going to put their loads? That’s a pragmatic question of weighing pros and cons, in his view. It’s not enough to say that incinerators give off lead and dioxin and must therefore be banned; you have to compare them with landfills and see which is least harmful overall. In conversation he and Abolt say a number of unfashionable things about waste management:
Raw garbage landfills tend to be acidic, allowing contaminants like lead to dissolve and escape. True, after burning garbage you still have to bury the incinerator ash–but those landfills tend to be alkaline, chemically holding pollutants in place.
A leaky landfill is (at least) a 30-year headache, whereas a malfunctioning incinerator can be stopped and fixed.
There is some evidence that landfill emissions to the air are comparable to incinerator emissions. Abolt gave me an article from the March/April 1994 issue of Solid Waste Technologies, in which Seattle consultant Kay Jones compared a new landfill with a new incinerator and found that the landfill “appears to pose greater health and environmental risks.” Jones found that the cancer risk from dioxin emitted from an incinerator was 0.07 chances per million, while the risk from a landfill that burns off its methane gas was 0.25 chances per million. By comparison, the cancer risk from an average diagnostic medical X-ray is said to be 20 chances per million. (Incinerator opponents reply that landfill-contaminated water can be detected and treated before anyone drinks it, but everyone has already breathed in the results of a mistake at Chicago and Cicero before it can be fixed.)
It’s easy for zealous environmentalists or scoop-seeking reporters to read these statements as inside information–clues to the city’s hidden intentions toward the incinerator. But Henderson and Abolt insist that these are just often-overlooked pieces of the puzzle. They would be poor public servants if they insisted that no level of lead or dioxin is acceptable from an incinerator and then disregarded similar emissions from the place Chicago’s garbage is buried instead. Henderson calls this a religious approach to a practical problem, and it drives him nuts. Repeated proclamations of dogma–“God Recycles, the Devil Burns”–do not help him think.
What exactly is he thinking about? The offices of the mayor and city budget and the departments of environment, law, streets and sanitation, and planning and economic development are conducting what Henderson calls “a top-down needs assessment” to decide if rebuilding the Northwest Incinerator would be
safe (“there should be no compromise on that”),
cost-effective (“we don’t want it to rely on tax dollars or general obligation bonds”),
consistent with a city recycling goal of near 40 percent, and
good for community and economic development.
“We are dedicated to public input,” says Henderson. “We do not seek to have a closed decision on this. We’re not pro incineration. We’re not advocating one thing or the other. The decision might be that this is not worth the effort. We do expect to put specific proposals and ideas on the table. But we want the public review to move forward based on objective facts from this top-down analysis.”
Once again, there’s no nice way to say this: hardly anybody in WASTE believes him. They think the decision to rebuild has already been made, and that any studies going on deal only with how to do it, not whether. “I don’t know of one shred of evidence, one piece of paper, that shows they have looked at any alternatives to rebuilding the incinerator,” says Bill Eyring.
“What the task force is doing is secret,” says Fred Friedman of WASTE. “It’s impossible to believe that they’ve been working for a year with no draft or anything–unless they came up with a conclusion first and then built a methodology to fit it. When we talk to individuals in the department about this, they say it’s a done deal, it’s just not supposed to be publicized until after the [April 4] election.
“Now they claim they’re doing a full-scale analysis. Well, we’d like to think they’re saying that because we’re here. Before opposition developed, there was no talk about anything like that.”
Henderson’s mind is not as open as he says. He is following the city’s Solid Waste Management Plan, approved by the City Council 34 to 10 on March 25, 1992, and on page I-41 it says flatly that the incinerator “will be rehabilitated to incorporate state-of-the-art environmental controls and to maintain a base level of disposal capacity within the City.” Obviously that could change if cost or safety considerations overruled, but the city’s presumption has long been that the incinerator will be rebuilt if feasible. Environmentalists rarely mention this aspect of the city’s plan even though it would seem to confirm their suspicions.
The two sides do meet, but they don’t seem to communicate. “We met with the Chicago Recycling Coalition on this subject more than a year ago,” says Henderson, stung by repeated accusations that the city’s decision making was being carried on in secret. The coalition’s Anne Irving recalls the meeting: “We asked the budget director if they had looked at alternatives and full life-cycle costs of rebuilding the incinerator. He brought in Henry Henderson, and he talked about how successful incineration was–but we never got a satisfactory answer to our question.” The Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Kevin Greene reports a similar experience: “We asked about their methodology and their criteria–they said, give us your information. We wanted to talk about their overall decision-making matrix, and they got very defensive.”
My own conversations with Henderson and Abolt were a similar mix of openness and opacity. They extolled public hearings held in the neighborhoods, but did not commit themselves to having any. They described their study, but did not answer repeated questions about when (or at what stage in the decision-making process) its results might be available for public discussion and input.
Will the decision then slip through as a fait accompli? “I don’t see how it could,” insists Abolt. “Any decision to modernize could not be made without the City Council approving financing. It would require permits from the state. Those are public processes we do not control. And second, given the strong advocacy against the plant, how would such a report do if we issued it tomorrow? How would their position be affected? We’ve offered to meet with them about what should be included in our analysis, with no response. We’ve said we’ll be happy to talk about opacity monitors and whatever would improve their level of comfort. But the advocacy is very hard-edged.
“Part of any full discussion has to be, can emissions be controlled at a safe level? Well, can a discussion be had if they’ve already declared there’s no safe level, forget it forget it forget it? It’s cast in religious terms; they’ve laid out a test we can’t meet the perfection of. At some point, I think it’s defensible for us to take their issues and concerns into account and then go do our work.”
Incinerator opponents argue that rebuilding the incinerator will cost too much (given that the city is committed to having it pay for itself) and that it will generate far fewer jobs than aggressive reycling would. But these are side issues to their main points: incinerators emit pollutants, and they are unnecessary.
The chorus from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” got yet another workout March 14, as demonstrators sang, “We don’t want incineration, we don’t want incineration, we don’t want incineration, we know there’s a better way.” Better documented but harder to sing is a 22-page report (“An Alternative to the Northwest Incinerator: Reducing Waste, Stimulating Economic Development and Creating Jobs Instead of Pollution”) by Bill Eyring, Kevin Greene, and Franklin Lomax published by the Center for Neighborhood Technology last fall. “It is quite possible,” they write, “that the City could achieve a recycling rate close to 80 percent.” The keys: a very detailed inventory of city wastes; charging people by the bag for garbage pickup; new techniques like “wet/dry collection”; a willingness to experiment with different approaches in different neighborhoods; and a commitment to mobilize communities to put plans into action.
We may never find out if they’re right, since the city is committed to a different method for single-family and low-rise residences, in which the Department of Streets and Sanitation collects “blue bags” of recyclables along with regular garbage to be separated and sorted at four “material recovery and recycling facilities” (MRRFs). “Only three big cities–New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago–have both residential and commercial recycling in place,” says William Abolt with pride. “I think you can look around and see that we are absolutely in the forefront of recycling everywhere.”
“Right now, yes,” says Anne Irving of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, a WASTE member group. “Forty or fifty percent recycling is what’s being seen in communities. But we’re talking about cutting-edge stuff–separate collection of wet and dry recyclables, composting food waste, intensive recycling zones.
“The blue-bag program [long criticized by the CRC for not having been fully tested] is an argument for technology. The city says, the blue bag will solve all our problems, just rely on our mechanical MRRF to sort recyclables out. We’re talking about aggressively targeting and convincing people and educating them to do it.
“I’ve heard Department of Environment people say, ‘We have to do the blue bag, because so many people aren’t going to do [other kinds of] recycling anyway.’ That is a defeatist attitude.”
But it’s easy to be defeatist when even economic incentives don’t seem to stimulate recycling as one might hope. Right now, the price for old newspapers has boomed. “Two years ago, people were paying to get rid of this stuff,” says Chicago Paperboard Corporation president Edward Schmitt. Today his company is offering up to $60 a ton–and it still has to import waste paper from the suburbs, Rockford, and even Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Schmitt is appalled that Illinois law currently subsidizes incinerators to burn his raw material. But what he’s fighting now in Chicago is plain old apathy. Neither CPC newspaper ads nor efforts by WASTE and the Center for Neighborhood Technology to interest west-side schools in old-fashioned money-raising paper drives have been successful. “A paper drive needs a champion,” says the CNT’s Bill Eyring, “someone willing to work hard and make calls, so that from their hours and hours of work the school will earn $100. We need some father with a truck who loves to do this stuff. We’re downplaying the money aspect.”
No wonder city experts agree with former New York sanitation commissioner Steven Polan–who oversaw a detailed waste-characterization study the CNT would like Chicago to replicate–when he writes in the City Journal, “Even under the best of circumstances, recycling requires changes in living habits that will need a generation to take hold.”
But Polan’s colleagues have grossly underestimated the potential of recycling in the recent past. One of many examples, according to Steve Apotheker in Resource Recycling (September), is the town of Norwich, Connecticut. Norwich promised 25,000 tons of garbage a year to an incinerator, and is now paying a $300,000 penalty because mandatory recycling has reduced its available garbage to less than 19,000 tons. Recycling has prospered in the face of official hostility, Apotheker adds: “The federal government was willing to create a guaranteed market and an attractive price structure for [incinerator-] generated electricity, but it had to be sued by national recycling and environmental groups, and harassed by Congress, to issue guidelines for federal procurement of a few products with recycled content as directed by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Recycling was not well understood or supported in academic circles compared to combustion technology. When funds were made available to some institutions, combustion and landfill technologies often received the majority of the funding, because engineers and other researchers were more familiar with these issues than those related to source reduction, recycling and composting.”
The story of Norwich may be a success of sorts, but it fuels the other fear of incinerator foes: that garbage burners are not merely unnecessary, but counterproductive. Having once been very expensively built, they need something to burn. And what burns best is paper and plastic, two things that also recycle best. “In theory,” says Bill Eyring, “you could divert more wards’ garbage trucks to the incinerator as an ever-larger fraction of trash was recycled. But the natural tendency when it’s hard to separate out items and you have that incinerator there needing to be fed is, why go the extra mile to separate it out?”
William Abolt says, “That’s only a problem if you get well over 50 percent in recycling,” or in areas where incinerator capacity has been overbuilt, like the east coast. He doesn’t expect that to happen anytime soon. But one reason the east coast got overbuilt was that city officials there believed the solid-waste experts who did not expect recycling to grow as it did.
Let’s suppose, just for the moment, that 80 percent recycling is impossible, that raw-garbage landfills pollute worse than incinerators, and that Indiana and downstate Illinois will soon refuse to bury our garbage for us. Suppose, in other words, that Chicago really does need a new incinerator in town–maybe more than one (an option to be considered in 1997, according to the city’s Solid Waste Management Plan). That still begs the question of where to put it.
“When the obsolete incinerator was in Lincoln Park, they didn’t rebuild it,” says Fred Friedman. “But when it’s on the west side . . . ”
“We know they aren’t building these things in rich white neighborhoods,” Lillian Drummond of the South Austin Coalition Community Council told her fellow demonstrators March 14. “They wouldn’t stand for it. This is genocide against poor people and all people of color. We will fight it in Chicago, in Springfield, in Washington, D.C., and on the streets if necessary.”
No fair, says Henry Henderson, speaking slowly and emphatically. “Investing in a state-of-the-art facility on the west side that operates legally is not an act of environmental racism. And evaluating whether it should be reconstructed under the most stringent standards is not an act of environmental racism. It’s responsible.
“We’re a city. We’re in the dirty services business–streets, sewage, garbage. Somebody has to do it. The question is how to do it best? To have a religious debate that turns on allegations the opponents know are not true is the rankest form of demagoguery.”
It would be easier to sympathize with Henderson if even the easy parts of health research had been done. But “they don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know,” says Jim Slama of Conscious Choice. According to assistant U.S. surgeon general Barry Johnson, “There are very few data on the actual human health impacts of incinerator emissions on the health of communities near incinerators.” Chicago is no exception. Even the most preliminary information is being gathered only now, and only with unpaid student help and no funding.
Loyola chemistry professor Alanah Fitch and her students got involved in measuring lead concentrations in soil near the incinerator because the university asks professors “to incorporate the ‘Jesuit ideal,’ including outreach to the community,” she says, and because sociology professor Philip Nyden heard her talking at a party and made the connections. Before May she hopes to measure lead levels in soil along a transect both upwind and downwind of the incinerator along Cicero Avenue. If the west side has indeed suffered “25 years of poison,” it should be easy to tell where it’s coming from. But if anything holds them up, her students will graduate, and the chance will be lost.
Why has no one done even this relatively uncomplicated study? “You never know the real effect because historically poor people don’t have a voice,” says west-side state representative Coy Pugh. If the city’s incinerator were at the corner of Chicago and State instead of Chicago and Cicero, does anyone imagine that we would still be waiting for volunteers to let us know whether it had loaded the soil in River North and Lincoln Park with lead?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.