By Jamey Dunn
A battle over the expansion of a landfill on Chicago’s southeast side may be put to rest after Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill banning new landfills in Cook County.
In 1984, the city of Chicago enacted a moratorium on creating new landfills or expanding existing ones. However, Land and Lakes Co. planned to annex a piece of the city into nearby Dolton, which does not have such a ban. The company planned to start dumping on the land to keep its site, called River Bend, from shutting down. River Bend is expected to reach capacity by 2014.
But opponents of the expansion pushed for a countywide ban, which with the governor’s signature, is now in effect. “This is a community victory. This is an environmental and health victory. This is showing that democracy can work for everyday people,” Quinn said at a Chicago bill signing.
Neighborhoods on the southeast side have dealt with high levels of pollution for decades. The area was home to several steel mills and industrial operations, and according to a 2001 city land use plan, about 835 acres of the southeast side are covered in landfills. Advocates point to the area as an example that minorities and those in low-income areas often bear a disproportionately high amount of the nation’s pollution.
“This is victory. We can breathe. We can look at today and say that we can do environmental restoration in our community. No more landfills in Cook County. That’s a great thing,” said Cheryl Johnson, executive director of People for Community Recovery. “We have to begin to learn how to clean up what we messed up. And it’s going to take a process. But today we are establishing that baseline for equal environmental protection.” Johnson’s mother, Hazel Johnson, founded People for Community Recovery and is known as the mother of the environmental justice movement.
Chicago Democratic Sen. Donne Trotter noted the improvements that have been made in the area since local residents began organizing to clean up their community. “It is not going to go back to the way it was — not to when we were growing up 40 [or] 50 years ago, when seeing smoke and smelling garbage meant you were home. Those days are gone. We have fought for a new life ... a quality of life that [means] our children will be able to enjoy this land [and] be able to enjoy all the great things that this land has to offer.”
However, Land and Lakes argues that the expansion could occur without harming the environmental progress that has been made in the area. The company says that under the ban, other environmental upgrades that would come along with the expansion would be lost.
“Land and Lakes operates a landfill in Dolton, which is adjacent to our other landfill, which reached capacity and closed in 1995. Our vision is to connect the two facilities, bring the dormant facility up to current, stricter environmental standards, create open lands with habitat restoration, all while generating low-cost renewable energy and properly managing the waste disposal needs of the area. This is about as green a project as they come,” Mary Margaret Cowhey, chief executive officer of Land and Lakes, told a Senate committee in May.
She added: “To place a blanket elimination on EPA permits in Cook County kills deserving projects. This bill is overkill based on fear.
Land and Lakes did not respond to requests for a statement on the signing of the bill, but a statement released when the legislation passed said: “The bill guarantees that a closed landfill in Chicago will remain a brownfield for generations to come. The bill means there is no opportunity for Land and Lakes to add environmental upgrades and develop green amenities consistent with what south-side residents want over the long term.” The company argues that the ban would also hurt local economic development by eliminating local jobs and potential tax revenues.
Oak Park Democratic Sen. Don Harmon, a sponsor of House Bill 3881, said that business growth should not be the only priority for lawmakers. “Down in the pressure cooker of Springfield, it was very easy to fall into the trap of talking about business. Is this bill going to help someone’s business? Is this bill going to hurt someone’s business? And business is important, but it’s not the only thing we need to be thinking about. It’s quality of life and our neighborhoods,” he said. “Cook County is simply too dense to sustain any new landfill development, and the residual consequences of all the landfills we have are going to cause us problems for a long time.”
Quinn took the opportunity to tout the Millennium Reserve project, which has the goal of restoring 140,000 acres of land in the area and increasing recreation in the Lake Calumet region. The state has invested almost $18 million in the project so far. “This will basically be the largest conservation area in an urban environment in the whole United States, and we have work to do, obviously. This area for many, many years was dumped upon,” he said.
Marc Miller, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said the project focuses on the area south of the Chicago River and extends beyond the Calumet River, with the Calumet area as its core. “For the first time in 100 years, we have a record of a bald eagle nest here in the Calumet [area],” Miller said. “And that shows you what is possible when you let nature heal itself once you get the pollutants and the bad things out of it.”
For more on the environmental history of the southeast side and the battle over land fill expansion, see the current Illinois Issues.