This article appears in the Winter 2019 issue of The American Prospect. Subscribe here.
This fall, the Midwest regional division of the Environmental Protection Agency posted soil-test results from homes located across from metal and mineral storage facilities along the Calumet River in southeast Chicago. Of more than 100 homes sampled, two-thirds had high levels of lead in their yards.
Ironically, the EPA was primarily testing not for lead but for manganese dust, a neurotoxin that has been detected in this neighborhood of 20,000 residents, including in 1,700 children five years old and younger. Half of the homes indeed had manganese contamination. In a further irony, the first manganese detection in 2014 came from EPA air monitors sniffing for polution from a petcoke facility. The neighborhood had been plagued with dust storms blowing off piles of this oil-refining byproduct that were several stories high.
Community activism and the EPA’s monitoring forced the elimination of the petcoke mountains. But the manganese and now the lead discoveries have community activists gearing up for another chapter in their endless campaign for environmental justice.
Activists have been planning meetings to demand that the city come to the community to do free blood testing both because of cost and because it is very difficult to take public transportation to clinics. And they were hardly alone. A very short drive away over the Indiana border, EPA data found illegal levels of lead being spewed into the air by a metals plant. A massive cleanup was already under way for major lead soil contamination in the Indiana cities of Whiting and Hammond.
“It’s been crazy because people don’t know what to do,” says Gina Ramirez, 35, a third-generation resident of southeast Chicago who serves as community outreach coordinator for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “One woman told me she went to get a blood test but she’s uninsured so it took her a while to find a clinic. She had to wait a total of a month not eating anything out of her garden.”
Christal Martinez and her children live along the Calumet River in a Southeast Chicago neighborhood that backs up against a massive warehouse holding bulk materials and metals. "There's just too many factories around here," she says.
Marcelina Pedraza, 43, who lived near the facilities until her daughter was two, now lives a few blocks away and is a lifelong resident of the far South Side. “We’re in a forgotten world,” she tells me. The discovery of lead, she says, is a reminder of how drenched the area is in pollution. “About the only break we got in the smell was sometimes the wind would blow from General Mills so it smelled like Cheerios,” Pedraza says. “When I was a kid, we just accepted it because we were grateful for the jobs it produced.”
“My dad worked at the steel mills,” she adds. “But the jobs are gone, the facilities are still dirty and not benefiting the community anymore. We’re more aware that we don’t have to live like this. I tell the tenants, don’t grow anything in the dirt.”
Peggy Salazar, the director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, says, “If it’s too dirty for the North Side, it’s too dirty for us,” referring to the much wealthier and much whiter part of Chicago. “It’s time we see what modernization looks like down here.”
But just as residents ramp up calls for environmental justice, a key ally that should be in their corner and delivering the data they need to challenge industry and the government is rapidly shrinking from assistance—the EPA.
AT THE AGENCY’S REGION 5 headquarters on the 12th floor of the Ralph Metcalfe Federal Building in downtown Chicago, you could see scientists, investigators, and lawyers swirling from office to office and chatting in the hallways. A conference room was packed for a data training session. The walls were adorned with photos of chemists, investigators, and response staff cleaning up spills, climbing to take measurements, analyzing lab samples, and engaging in community listening sessions. It was not immediately apparent that the EPA was disintegrating from a principled protector of the people to a grotesque guardian of polluting industries.
But in this office, which is charged with protecting 338,000 square miles of air and water in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, such a conclusion was unmistakable. Current and recently departed staffers speak in a discordant litany of despair and defiance, pride and bewilderment, candor and fear of retribution. They report that their mission is more difficult to fulfill in the Trump administration than in any previous administration, even when prior presidents were heavily backed by the chemical and fossil fuel industries.
“Some of us go back to Anne Gorsuch,” says recently retired Region 5 attorney Sherry Estes, recalling President Ronald Reagan’s first EPAadministrator, who cut 2,200 of the agency’s 13,000 employees. (She happened to be the mother of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.) “A lot of us came to the agency in the George W. Bush era, and he was no friend to the environment. We learned to batten down the hatches.”
Despite that, she says that for most of her career, Region 5 remained desirable for young attorneys interested in the environment. “We had one position and you’d get 400 resumes. People had to walk on water to get a job.”
Today, there are far fewer people at EPA to inspect water, let alone walk on it. The EPA had 17,359 employees during the first term of President Barack Obama. The agency is now at 13,758 employees, according to The Washington Post, the lowest number since 1987. With half of the remaining EPAstaff reportedly eligible for retirement over the next five years, attrition alone may help the Trump administration shrink the EPA to fewer than 8,000 employees, the lowest level since the first two years after the agency was created in 1970. In the first year and a half of the Trump administration, the EPA’s offices for enforcement and compliance and for research and development have lost 15.7 percent and 10 percent of their staffs, respectively.
In actual numbers, a Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) Freedom of Information Act request revealed that, in the first 19 months of the administration, 73 enforcement and compliance staffers left. Just four new staff members were hired, with two of them having odd résumés. Susan Bodine became assistant administrator, having worked at different times for the EPAand lobbying for heavy polluters. Patrick Traylor became deputy assistant administrator, having been a defense attorney for the Koch brothers.
Staff losses at EPA began well before the Trump administration, as Republicans in Congress shrank the EPA’s budget from $10.3 billion in fiscal year 2010 to flat funding of about $8 billion during the last five years of Obama’s presidency. Trump sent agency morale into free-fall by installing Scott Pruitt as his first administrator, the same Pruitt who personally sued the EPA 14 times on behalf of polluting industries.
From the outset, Pruitt unabashedly sabotaged the agency’s stated mission “to protect human health and the environment” by severely curtailing the scope of scientific investigations and regulatory enforcement. Pruitt resigned in July under a cloud of ethics scandals. The acting administrator is Andrew Wheeler, formerly a major coal lobbyist. In September, The New York Times reported that Wheeler is dissolving the top office advising him on the science that guides decisions about proposed health and pollution regulations. The EPA also placed Ruth Etzel, the head of the agency’s Office of Children’s Health, on a mysterious administrative leave. Both offices report directly to Wheeler.
“Clearly, this is an attempt to silence voices … to kill civil servants’ input and scientific perspectives on rule-making,” Michael Mikulka, president of Local 704 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents all of Region 5’s bargaining unit employees, told the Times.
It strains the imagination to believe that in a nation with more than 1,300 Superfund sites and 450,000 contaminated “brownfield” sites, an EPA trimmed to less than half its peak of employment can remotely begin to investigate, enforce, and monitor the immense variety of environmental threats under its purview. These range from industrial and transportation air pollution to coal ash and agricultural chemicals in our food supply and common household goods.
Staffers say Region 5 is a national epicenter of pollution because of the heavy industrialization of the Midwest. That makes it a good place to see exactly how a hollowed-out agency forced to sideline science can ultimately harm the health of American families.
TALKING ON THE CONDITION that they spoke for themselves and not in official capacities, some say they felt pressure to issue permits to companies with less scrutiny. They say that new internal rules have sidelined investigations, with delayed action or no attention at all.
“When I started, we had ten inspectors. Now we’re down to three,” says Lilly Simmons, who formerly inspected industrial injection wells to make sure their hazardous wastes don’t pollute groundwater. She remains at EPAin other capacities. “When someone says do more with less, they don’t know how much we already do.”
In 2010, Region 5 had about 1,250 staffers. With the national flat funding, that number began eroding. Since Trump’s election, erosion became exodus. The region lost 120 staffers in the 22 months since the 2016 election, more than doubling the pace of departures of the prior six years. As of August 31, the region was down to 987 employees, according to its union.
Echoing what UCS found at the national level, the single-largest category of departures in Region 5 was “environmental protection specialist.” According to the EPA, those specialists “play a central role” in planning and administering programs, including compliance and enforcement. They accounted for about a quarter of the 120 losses, according to records reviewed by UCS. The next two biggest categories were environmental scientists and environmental engineers.
The three categories added up to nearly half of departures. It leads one to wonder if the EPA is trying to eliminate every position with “environmental” in its title.
“At the start of January 2017, the region had four Superfund civil investigators. Now we have zero,” says Mikulka. “The last one retired in January , and none have been replaced. They did the gumshoe work like police detectives.”
“These were the people that go out to ask people who live by factories, ‘What did you see?’ ‘What did you do there?’ They talk to people who worked in steel production shops every day and ask, ‘What did you do with the waste pickle liquor?’ and the worker says, ‘Well, I took it out to the back 40.’”
“The investigator would ask, ‘Where was it dumped?’ The worker would then draw a circle on an aerial photo and show where the waste had typically been dumped. Without this type of investigative work, we can’t hold companies accountable under Superfund.”
Felicia Chase visits homes for water quality, and assisted in the Flint lead water crisis.
Now, her division is down two inspectors. She says it means fewer people in the agency like Miguel Del Toral, the Region 5 water specialist who helped confirm lead in Flint’s drinking water.
“With all the hells of Flint, plus East Chicago and so many other places around the nation with water at risk, I’m baffled by all the cuts,” Chase says. “With all the crises we’ve had in recent times, we’re been basically told to stand down. … It’s very difficult when everything you do is devalued and dismissed. We didn’t sign up to do nothing. It’s like the president does not care about this and is sending signals about who he thinks is disposable and who he does not represent.”
Although she did not literally repeat President Trump’s famous fecal slur of Haiti and African nations during an immigration meeting last January, Chase ruefully says, “Perhaps he views these places as African countries.”
BY ITS LACK OF ACTION in pollution enforcement, the Trump administration certainly seems to have treated huge swaths of America as disposable. The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) found last February that civil pollution fines and required pollution cleanup costs plummeted in the Trump administration’s first year. The EIP report highlighted how 15 major polluting facilities in Region 5 had received notices of violations during the Obama administration, but the Trump administration had at the time of the report announced no enforcement actions against any of them.
More recently, a November report by the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative found that Region 5 saw a 22 percent drop in both civil enforcement case initiations and conclusions from midyear 2017 to midyear 2018. And it was much worse in other regions covering states in the Southeast, Great Plains, and the Rockies.
According to Nicole Cantello, chief union steward for Region 5, cases are already dropping out of sight because the EPA under Pruitt curtailed the independent powers of regional investigators to directly ask potential polluters to provide air, water, or waste data. Now such requests—especially those that require testing and sampling—must first go to Washington, D.C., for approval.
For Chase, the change has been dramatic. Normally, she says, she would issue four to six requests per year to companies for water data, but she has issued none since Trump took office. “It’s the first critical piece to initiate our work,” she says. “We’re the ones who take our own on-site pictures, take our own videos. We see the red flags.”
Jesse McGrath, an air-quality expert, recently left the agency for academia to study the relationship of crops to ozone and carbon dioxide. He says it was time to look for a new job when he discovered data discrepancies, incomplete air-quality records, and malfunctioning air monitors in a particular county.
When he informed a supervisor of the problems, he says the response of the supervisor was that the prior data was “great.” McGrath says he was not sent back to the county for follow-up. McGrath is only 36. His departure automatically left an older office behind with no one clearly coming up the ranks with the skill to properly interpret data coming from air monitors—or even to know if they’re working at all.
Mountains of petcoke once were found along the Calumet River next to this facility (red structure) controlled by Koch Ibdustries. Community activism put a stop to it.
McGrath says Region 5 has historically had some of the best air-quality data in the nation, going back four decades. That data has been critical in determining what is safe for communities abutting polluting facilities. He worries that meticulous scientists will not want to fill his shoes in a demoralized EPA.
THE LOSS OF DATA ANALYSTS like McGrath is literally a matter of life and death. A 2013 study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that air pollution kills 200,000 Americans each year, with the average victim losing a decade of life expectancy. Studies last year published in The New England Journal of Medicine and The Journal of the American Medical Association found that thousands of lives could be saved with relatively minor reductions in the fine particulate matter of soot. Several other studies in recent years have reached similar conclusions.
As anyone who followed the Flint water crisis knows, lead and other toxic chemicals in drinking water can cause irreversible loss of cognitive skills in children. Yet in November 2018, the EPAannounced the closure of its office that tests chemical safety for children, the same office that in December published research in theAmerican Journal of Public Healththat found that low-income people and African Americans are at higher risk of living near air pollution.
Chase says the thing that goes most unappreciated after years of political attacks decrying the EPA as a job-killing agency is the passion and culturally sensitive human touch that inspectors and investigators can bring to their job—especially when so many issues of environmental justice impact communities that tend to see government agencies as insensitive. Chase, who is African American, remembers a moment while helping investigate the Flint water crisis when she and a colleague entered the home of a white woman who was five months pregnant.
As she recounts, when her colleague, a white male, began to introduce himself and Chase, the pregnant woman said, “Stop! I don’t want to talk with you. Everyone who has told me the water’s safe looks like you.” Chase says she stepped forward to conduct the test. “That put the importance of my work in bold print,” she says. “In public, our work is so belittled you can get to the point where you feel your input does not matter. But the fact I knew I had to comfort a white woman to show her how to test the water, it was a human moment. She hugged us before we left. I was really living the true meaning of my agency.”
Chase’s colleagues are particularly fearful that the meaning of the agency is at stake because, while Scott Pruitt may be gone, he left many pro-industry appointees in his wake. One is Region 5 Administrator Cathy Stepp.
STEPP CAME TO THE TRUMP administration’s attention due to her six and a half years as secretary of Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources under Governor Scott Walker. To environmentalists in the Badger State, she was to the right-wing Walker what Pruitt was to Trump.
Walker installed her in 2011 as secretary despite the fact that she had no previous experience advocating on behalf of the environment. She was known for carping about regulations as a state senator and a co-owner of a family home-building business. Walker said he wanted “someone with a chamber-of-commerce mentality” to run DNR and Stepp was his woman. In a 2009 blog, she mocked DNR employees as “unelected bureaucrats” who were “anti-development, anti-transportation, and pro-garter snakes, karner blue butterflies, etc.”
Wisconsin’s long history of producing conservationists such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Senator Gaylord Nelson, who founded Earth Day, was turned upside down under Stepp, a climate change skeptic. DNR deleted from its website the fact that human activity is the main cause of climate change. Financial penalties for improper discharge of wastewater into Wisconsin waterways plummeted. In data obtained by the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and reported on by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the state collected only $12,057 in wastewater fines in 2015, compared with the ten-year average of $455,407 a year. In overall environmental violation fines, Walker collected $6.4 million in his first four years, less than half the $15.2 million collected in the last four years of prior Governor Jim Doyle, a Democrat.
A crowning abdication of Wisconsin’s environmental protection was the announcement last year that electronics behemoth Foxconn would build a factory complex in southeast Wisconsin that reportedly will have the footprint of 11 football stadiums. Ranked 25th in the Fortune Global 500 for revenue, the contract maker of smartphones, tablets, screens, and videogame consoles for top brands such as Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, and Nintendo was lured to the state to make liquid-crystal display (LCD) panels with $4 billion in state, county, and local taxpayer incentives.
The state sealed the deal by waiving every environmental regulation it could. Despite the fact that LCD manufacturing usually involves toxic heavy metals, Foxconn was excused from wetlands discharge rules and from making environmental impact statements, and is being allowed to alter navigable streams and divert seven million gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan.
Tia Nelson, daughter of Gaylord Nelson and former executive secretary of Wisconsin’s board of commissioners for public lands, says Walker and Stepp “singlehandedly destroyed decades of bipartisan tradition of protecting our environment. Cathy essentially destroyed the science division of DNR.”
In her first year as Region 5 administrator, Stepp has made her office something of a dead zone itself, assuming an extremely low profile when Pruitt and Wheeler have more publicly undertaken industry’s dirty work. She said nothing in the spring when Pruitt himself waived federal smog limits for the Foxconn plant, nor did she or any regional administrator speak up when Wheeler canned his top national advisers for science and children’s health.
THE FAMILIES THAT LIVE in the crosshairs, crosswinds, and cursed waters of pollution need more than a mouthpiece in their regional EPA. With the EPA’s top leadership in Washington being so openly hostile to the agency’s mission, and state environmental agencies either financially strapped or prisoners of conservative anti-regulation politics, it is reasonable to assume that untold communities, particularly working-class and low-income neighborhoods in close proximity to industrial manufacturing, refining, shipping, and storage, are likely to suffer reversals of many hard-won environmental justice victories.
Southeast Chicago is as much at risk as any community in America. When I visited earlier this year, I met Christal Martinez with her two-year-old son Feliz and four-year-old daughter Julee whirling about her legs on the sidewalk. She stopped for a moment before dropping off her children with their grandma. A half-block behind Martinez was a foreboding sight.
Unlike a suburban block that ends in a cul-de-sac or a typical urban scene where rows of parked cars and trees stretch up the street, this neighborhood was starkly walled off by a massive warehouse holding bulk materials and metals storage along the Calumet River.
“There’s just too many factories around here,” says Martinez, 28, a child-care provider. “My mom used to go to the meetings to complain about the dirt and dust. One company used to give us free car washes. Another replaced windows in homes.”
“They say it’s better, but on some days, there’s still dirt and dust. There’s still piles of salt that blow around. A lot of people are sick around here. My daughter has asthma. I have an uncle with asthma. People complain that their skin gets irritated.”
And that’s after three decades of community activism by groups such as the Southeast Environmental Task Force, which has promoted more green space in the neighborhood and opposed incinerators, landfills, a police shooting range, and even an airport. A symbol of recovery of the area’s remaining wetlands and woods is the return of nesting bald eagles.
On windy days before the removal of the petcoke, clouds of black dust so smothered Martinez’s yard that it dulled the brilliance of her mother’s flowers.
“You could see the dust flying off the mounds like little tornadoes,” says Dave Diaz, 50. “In the summer, no matter how hot it got, we kept the windows closed.” Josie Gonzalez, a 44-year-old hair stylist, says, “On real windy days, it still got inside the windows. You’d wipe your dining room table and the next day, it was black again.”
The elimination of the petcoke came significantly with the aid of the EPA, as the agency’s regional air experts had the data to debunk corporate intransigence. For instance, one of the companies that stored the petcoke is a subsidiary of Koch Industries. That company commissioned a study by Michael Dourson, then of the University of Cincinnati, whom environmentalists consider a hatchet man for the chemical industry. He concluded in 2016 that the petcoke dust in the region was “well below” harmful levels.
To the contrary, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, based on monitoring from the EPA, concluded that the dust blown from the petcoke piles “adversely impacts air quality in the community,” to the point of being an “acute and chronic health threat” to children and the elderly on poor air-quality days.
Homes located across from metal and mineral storage facilities along the Calumet River in East Chicago, Indiana, were found to have high levels of lead according to the EPA soil-test results.
The critical importance of EPA science was magnified even more last year when Trump attempted to nominate Dourson to run the EPA’s chemical safety division. The outcry over his blind eye to pollution was so intense that it even eroded support from key Republican senators. Dourson withdrew his name.
IT DOES NOT TAKE MUCH to imagine what would have happened in neighborhoods like Martinez’s without strong EPA enforcement. Her boyfriend, Alejandro Gonzales, 30, who once did a college paper on lead exposure in East Chicago, says, “You can’t put up a fence or sign that says, ‘Dirt, get out!’ There’s no asterisk on the street signs or red flags you can put up warning you that you should have health concerns. When you sniffle, you don’t know if you just have sinuses or allergies or if it’s because you’re breathing in something bad.”
The discovery of manganese dust, and now the lead in the soil, reaffirms the need for full vigilance. The manganese came from the S.H. Bell Company. That Pittsburgh-based bulk material storage and metals-handling company, which has several terminals in the Midwest and along the East Coast, is notorious for manganese dust.
“It was true science detective work and shows how research stacks up,” Cantello said. “If we hadn’t issued the letter for the air monitors to measure particulates, we never would have found the manganese.”
Manganese is commonly used to fortify steel and, in small doses as part of a healthy diet of whole grains, is an important mineral nutrient promoting bone development. But it is a heavy metal neurotoxin if inhaled as dust in unsafe amounts.
Evidence of the probable harm has been found in the vicinity of another massive S.H. Bell facility in East Liverpool, Ohio, along the Ohio River. That town was once known as the pottery capital of America. But with a current population of just 11,000, compared with 26,000 in the 1970s, East Liverpool has been in the national news for industrial pollution. On top of manganese, another company chronically releases illegal levels of pollutants in toxic waste incineration. Local environmental justice advocate Alonzo Spencer told The Columbus Dispatch in 2015 that people in the area live in a “sacrifice zone.”
Bell’s contribution to the pollution, according to the EPAduring the Obama administration, was “the highest levels of ambient manganese concentrations in the United States.” Until very recently, most prior knowledge about airborne manganese risk came from industrial workplace studies. In 2015, federal researchers found that people who lived in East Liverpool had more hand tremors, posture instability, and lower scores for immediate memory than residents of a control town.
“Lead impacts are very clear,” lead author Erin Haynes told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “but we are just starting to understand manganese.”
Earlier this year, after nearly a decade of data screaming for remediation, and despite 14 months of delay by the Trump administration, the EPAannounced a final decree with S.H. Bell in East Liverpool to control dust and monitor emissions.
Will such remediation reach back to the industry-heavy neighborhoods of Chicago and to mothers of young children like Martinez? Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago are currently studying manganese exposure in child toenail samples. In December, Chicago public television reported that preliminary results show higher exposure in southeast Chicago than elsewhere in the city.
No one yet knows what that exposure means, especially when the EPAis an increasingly shaky partner in science and has its own staff in Region 5 gasping for professional air. Whereas in East Liverpool, the Trump EPA was essentially forced to issue a consent decree to S.H. Bell, the city of Chicago took no chances waiting on a federal solution for the southeast side of town. In December 2017, it announced stringent regulations to ban outdoor storage of manganese and to suspend loading and unloading during high winds.
“While President Trump and EPA Administrator Pruitt cut funding and appoint regional administrators with track records of environmental ambivalence, Chicago continues to step up,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a press release.
But how long will it be until the EPA once again steps up for mothers like Christal Martinez and her two children?