April 3, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 14

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    Study: Gentrified neighborhoods home to hazardous waste sites

    Sites also concentrated in many Hispanic areas A new study by researchers at the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies has produced the most comprehensive list to date of hazardous waste sites in Chicago. The list shows high concentrations of the sites in gentrified neighborhoods along the North Branch of the Chicago River and in Hispanic neighborhoods on the Northwest and Southwest sides.

    The report, "The Locality of Waste Sites Within the City of Chicago: A Demographic, Social and Economic Analysis," shows that the city's patterns of industrialization and settlement play a key role in the sites' locations. It found little historical evidence that waste-generating industries were deliberately placed in minority neighborhoods, said Don Coursey, Ameritech Professor of Public Policy and Dean of the Harris School, an author of the report.

    "Understanding where waste sites are in relation to ethnic group residential areas in Chicago is the first step in doing truly definitive research on the subject of hazardous waste and its impact on humans," Coursey said. "A thorough understanding of the history and relationship between minorities and hazardous waste can aid us in deciding what parts of environmental public policy should receive primary attention."

    For the current study, Coursey and Brett Baden, a graduate student in the Harris School, examined state and federal records to compare the city's industrial and residential patterns in 1960 and 1990.

    "When we looked at the location and concentration of waste sites in 1960, we found that waste was located in neighborhoods near commercial waterways and neighborhoods with low population densities," Coursey said. Those neighborhoods were generally poor and white.

    The historical pattern of locating industry near waterways is one reason why highly desirable river-front property on the North Side is also located near waste sites, Coursey said.

    "Many areas close to industry, such as neighborhoods in the vicinity of Elston Avenue, Milwaukee Avenue and the Chicago River, are host to redevelopment efforts," Coursey said. "Former warehouses are being redeveloped as loft apartments and condominiums for affluent professionals who wish to live near the river, which has recently become an environmental 'good' as its pollution levels have decreased."

    The area is going through a transition from industrial use to residential use as property values rise, but the contaminants of the area's industrial heritage remain, the authors point out.

    Many of the waste sites in the gentrified north river-front area are classified as Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) sites. That federal act was passed in 1980 to help manage waste at plants then in operation. The Harris School study found 205 RCRA sites, which are controlled by federal regulations. The sites include chemical plants, beauty product plants, fuel storage sites and metal-finishing products.

    Another category is CERCLA, or Superfund, sites. Those sites, which are uncontrolled, are governed by the Comprehensive Environmental Compensation and Liability Act and are older than those sites covered by the RCRA legislation. The study located 113 CERCLA sites, which are typically found along waterways and include old paint plants, metal-plating plants, lead smelters, metal-finishing plants and large manufacturing plants.

    In addition to studying RCRA and CERCLA sites, Coursey and Baden also examined the records on solid-waste disposal sites. There are 105 solid-waste disposal sites in the city.

    Hispanics are more likely than other groups to live near a CERCLA site, the study shows. "This may be due to the relatively recent migration of Hispanics into older, predominantly white ethnic neighborhoods," Coursey said.

    Areas where African Americans settled on the South Side before 1960 were not industrialized and continue to be relatively free of contamination. Since 1960, however, blacks as well as Hispanics have moved into the neighborhoods where whites lived earlier, and some of those areas contain large numbers of RCRA and CERCLA sites. Blacks, for instance, now live in formerly white neighborhoods west of Lake Calumet, an industrial area.

    Despite the transition, there is no clear pattern that African Americans are more likely than whites to live near waste sites.

    African Americans make up 43 percent of Chicago's population, and 41 percent of the people living near waste sites are African American. Whites make up 42 percent of the city's population, and 44 percent of the people living near waste sites are white. Hispanics make up 12 percent of the population, and 13 percent of the people living near waste sites are Hispanic.

    The study expands work on a report released in 1994 that found no evidence of environmental racism in Chicago. That study, "Environmental Racism in the City of Chicago: The History of EPA Hazardous Waste Sites in African American Neighborhoods," was based on a smaller sample of 30 randomly selected CERCLA sites.

    -- William Harms