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The pollution emitter dashboard from the UIC environmental justice team now includes asphalt plants (blue circles), rail yards (red stars) and intermodal shipping sites (aqua diamonds).

New Environmental Justice Formula Highlights Southwest Side’s Heavy Pollution Burdens

Published September 29, 2022

An innovative new method for measuring environmental justice has received its first application in an early release of findings about Chicago-area asphalt plants, rail yards and intermodal facilities used to move freight.

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A team of scientists at the University of Illinois - Chicago (UIC) School of Public Health led by Prof. Michael Cailas have released the latest version of their “dashboard” that tracks pollution emitters across Chicago: a tool that now includes the above three types of industrial sites.

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But this time, data has now started to be considered in the context of the cumulative effects neighborhoods face from emissions, using a new formula pioneered by the UIC team to measure environmental justice burdens.

Concentrated Industry

“Preliminary analysis … revealed disparities that we deemed necessary to communicate to the public,” stated the paper Midwest Comprehensive Visualization Dashboards: The Image of an Overburdened Community. The study found that Chicago’s asphalt plants, rail yards and intermodal facilities are highly concentrated on the Southwest Side.

A dashboard map of Chicago shows how asphalt plants, rail yards and intermodal facilities are mostly located on the Southwest Side, alongside a wind rose illustrating primary wind directions.A dashboard map of Chicago shows how asphalt plants, rail yards and intermodal facilities are mostly located on the Southwest Side, alongside a wind rose illustrating primary wind directions.“It is not an issue related to an individual facility, but the fact that on the Southwest Side you have 12 of the 20 [asphalt] facilities concentrated in a relatively small area,” Cailas said. “Nowhere else in Chicago is such a dense concentration of facilities.”

In Chicago’s McKinley Park neighborhood, the dashboard tracks two asphalt plants, including the largest, MAT Asphalt, and one rail yard, as well as a federally designated Toxic Release Inventory site and a brownfield.

Very Advantageous Location

Cailas said geography and history have played a big role in where industry is located, especially plants that have to manufacture asphalt close to where it is applied lest the material harden en route.

The Southwest Side is “at a very advantageous location” for this, he said, noting the proximity of major highways, as well as the pending boom in Chicago road building anticipated as a result of the 2020-2025 Rebuild Illinois Highway Improvement Program, of which Chicago is a major beneficiary.

Tracking Wind Direction

In addition to tracking the new types of industrial facilities, the study now considers wind direction and intensities, using data from the Midway Airport weather station.

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“The prevailing low-speed wind direction is from the South-Southwest,” the study noted. “This implies that emissions … are likely to dissipate slower and remain in the communities longer.”

“The residential sectors of the South Lawndale, Lower West Side, McKinley Park, and Bridgeport [community areas] are located downwind from multiple sources of emissions,” the study said.

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A New Formula

The new environmental justice formula pioneered by Cailas and his team breaks new ground in considering the total concentrations of pollutants by industry within a specific geographic area.

This fits in with recent U.S. federal initiatives to better assess environmental justice burdens and proposed development: The draft of the 2022-2026 Strategic Plan for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes “it is often easier to site an eighth facility in a community that already has seven than in a community that has none.”

Overburdened Community

Currently, even though environmental laws regulate individual industrial facilities, there are no federal, state or municipal measures assessing the cumulative burden of all pollution emitters within a geographic area.

The UIC team’s formula seeks to address this by defining an “overburdened community” as one where environmental burdens (EB in the formula below) and socioeconomic disparities (SD) within a specific geographic area (k) can be assessed by its stationary emissions sources (S1, S2, etc.)

UIC School Public Health environmental justice formula 20220928

“Even if each individual source Si is far under the regulatory threshold, the sum of all these sources has the potential to pose, under certain conditions ..., a threat to vulnerable communities,” the UIC team’s study stated.

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New emissions sources (n) add to the burden, illustrating how the cumulative emissions for all the facilities could violate pollution regulations, even if each individual facility emits but a fraction of the limit.

Odors Explained

This underlines the importance of measuring cumulative emissions toward establishing environmental burden, the study said, and “partially explains as well a large number of odor complaints in the southwest section of the city, since the regulatory EPA limit is not directly related to odor.”

The formula is also informed by the team’s paper Putting the Environment back in “Environmental Justice”: A Two-Dimensional Approach for Area Identification, submitted this summer to the Environmental Justice Journal, Cailas said.

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Study co-author and UIC Fellow Phillip Boda called the new formula for cumulative environmental burden “the first of its kind,” one that uses proximity to emissions to address community members’ concerns.

Burdens Over Time

“This helped them recognize that it is not just one or two burdens that need to be addressed,” Boda said, “but that it is the accumulation of multiple burdens over time that should inform how they leverage their collective organizing.”

“The new visualization tools and report from UIC highlight the local burden that some communities bear because of repeated environmental injustices,” said Elizabeth Porter, clinical assistant professor at UIC and one of the study’s co-contributors.

“The UIC team is looking into ways that cities and states can be more creative and active in policy making efforts to lead the way in protecting our most vulnerable communities,” she said.

Ed. Note: MAT Asphalt is a Sponsor of the McKinley Park News. For information about our operations and policies, see our About Us page and the Letter from the Editor "Building a Trustworthy News Business." For more about our coverage of MAT Asphalt, see the Letter from the Editor "Notes on Our Reporting about MAT Asphalt."

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