CHICAGO — Dusty mounds of petroleum coke are no longer in Chicago, but federal and city officials have discovered a potentially more dangerous kind of pollution while investigating the black piles that once towered above the city’s far South Side.
Air monitors posted around two storage terminals on the Calumet River in 2014 and 2015 detected alarming levels of manganese, the Chicago Tribune reported. The heavy metal is used in steelmaking and can permanently damage the nervous system and trigger anxiety, learning difficulties and memory loss.
Investigators say they have an idea about which company is responsible for the pollution, but their efforts to pinpoint the culprit and crack down on its emissions have been thwarted for nearly three years.
The company, S.H. Bell Co., stockpiles manganese and other materials near the former petcoke sites. The Pittsburgh-based firm says it’s not responsible for the pollution.
The company has repeatedly ignored Chicago regulations adopted in 2014 that require bulk storage operators to install air pollution monitors around their properties’ perimeter. S.H. Bell Co. also rejected a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency request for monitoring equipment, prompting the EPA to sue the company in federal court last year.
Now S.H. Bell Co. is resisting the city’s efforts to get the monitors installed before a March 1 deadline it agreed to as part of a legal settlement with federal authorities.
“Cases like this show why it’s so important to have government agencies looking out for communities when corporations dig in their heels and do everything they can to avoid complying with the law,” said Mary Gade, a former top EPA official in Chicago during the administration of former President George W. Bush. “Without a well-trained, experienced enforcement staff, it’s easier for companies to cut corners in ways that can harm people.”
About 20,000 people, including more than 1,700 children ages 5 and younger, live in low-income, predominantly Latino neighborhoods within a mile of the S.H. Bell facility.