The Battle To Save A `Toxic Wasteland'

Bud Polk swerves his Ford onto a gravel road that runs behind a towering garbage dump--our first stop on a nature tour of the Lake Calumet area. He parks on the roadside and tromps a few hundred feet to show me Illinois' largest colony of black-crowned night herons, an endangered species in this state. The herons' marshy habitat--just 15 miles south of the Loop--has for its neighbors Acme Steel Co.'s coke oven, two major landfills, and an incinerator for PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). Yet miraculously, the rookery keeps growing year after year--thanks to the herons' stubborn attachment to home.

The people of nearby Hegewisch are similarly rooted. Living on a residential island surrounded by shuttered steel mills, chemical plants, and the greatest concentration of landfills on the continent, they don't want to move. They're bitterly opposed to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's $10.8 billion plan to clean up the area by razing their neighborhood to build a regional airport.

Signs of resistance are everywhere. Red ribbons, symbolizing opposition to the plan, adorn many of Hegewisch's well-tended bungalows. A hand-lettered sign in the window of the community center reads: "Born here. Raised here. Live here. Will die here. Go to hell 'Dick' Daley. No airport!" Outside the center, children sell lemonade and home-baked cookies and recite the slogan.

The neighborhood Hegewischians are fighting to protect has been called a "toxic wasteland" by Mayor Daley. Pollution is suspected of contributing to a community death rate that is as much as twice the city average for certain types of cancer. More than 120 years of industrial activity and illegal dumping have turned the area's waterways into toxic swamps. "It's a virtual Love Canal," says Polk, a former executive director of the Calumet Area Industrial Commission. "You could probably drop a match in there, and it would burn for days."

ONLY WAY? Daley's airport project, announced in February, 1990, was envisioned as a kind of Marshall Plan for the southeast Chicago region. The proposed budget included $837 million for waste removal and $265 million to "relocate" wetlands and the area's small patches of surviving prairie. Daley claimed the plan was the only way to get funds for the massive cleanup. Without the airport, the region "will remain in its currently degraded state," he warned.

But many in Hegewisch blame the mayor and his late father, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, for exacerbating the problems the airport is supposed to help solve. "It's the city's fault we've become a small island surrounded by toxic waste," says Virgina L. Cap, a local environmental activist who has fought the dumps for more than a decade. Unable to get the airport plan through the state legislature, Daley pronounced it "dead" and said that instead the city would add new runways to O'Hare International Airport, a move certain to spur even more opposition among the legislators. Some Daley aides and airport boosters say privately that the mayor hopes the O'Hare threat will pressure the legislature into approving the airport project come fall.

PRIDE. Economics figure heavily in the fight against the airport. The severe pollution has already depressed the market value of homes here. Since most residents own their places--and nearly half are retired or outside the work force--they're worried that they won't be able to afford comparable new homes.

But the main reason for their opposition is a fierce collective pride in having overcome years of adversity. The neighborhood withstood the sudden collapse of the area's steel industry in the 1980s, which resulted in more than half the local work force being laid off from high-paying jobs. While some communities would have splintered or dissolved, Hegewisch held together.

Now, the pollution problem is binding Hegewischians even more tightly to each other. Indeed, coping with the dirty environment is part of everyday life here. In Bogey's, a local tavern whose motto is "It's just a shot away," laid-off incinerator workers mull over the tests they've recently taken to measure PCB levels in their blood. As a mongrel dog lies curled up in a corner, the men discuss whether to sign waivers releasing the shuttered plant's owner from any responsibility if they get cancer.

Just down the road from Bogey's, 74-year-old Catherine Mezydlo carefully tends her garden of cucumbers, tomatoes, and beans. Mezydlo says that people used to come to the marshland behind her home to dump garbage illegally in the middle of the night--until her sons blocked off the alley with a tree. Although a mountainous garbage dump looms behind the home where she has lived since 1943, Mezydlo says she likes it here because "it's more like the country." Wide open spaces make southeast Chicago the last place in the city where hunting is still legal.

Even so, people here are worried about how the pollution might be affecting their health. Most Hegewisch residents believe they run a higher risk of getting cancer or a serious respiratory disease than people in other Chicago neighborhoods. Their fears are well-grounded: A 1986 study of cancer mortality rates in southeast Chicago by the Illinois Public Health Dept. found that deaths from cancers of the lung, prostate, and bladder were far higher in Hegewisch than in the city as a whole.

HIGH RISK. That's why some environmentalists scorn Daley's airport plan, because the bulk of the cleanup wouldn't take place until the next century. They contend the pollution in the area poses an immediate, serious, public-health risk. Repeated efforts to get the area classified as a Superfund site have failed, largely because there hasn't been conclusive evidence of an immediate threat to public safety. But some new studies suggest that contaminated groundwater from the Lake Calumet area may be flowing into Lake Michigan.

Based on these studies, the House subcommittee on health and the environment on May 22 launched an investigation into the possibility of drinking-water contamination as a result of waste disposal in the region. Meanwhile, Representative George E. Sangmeister (D-Ill.) is seeking $2 million in federal funding for further groundwater studies. Sangmeister, who opposes the airport plan, hopes that if a study provides evidence of contamination, 35 square miles of southeast Chicago could be immediately designated as a Superfund site.

To Bud Polk and groups such as the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club, the environment is the overriding consideration. The airport would destroy some 393 acres of wetlands. "There are miracles five minutes away from here," says Polk, as we continue our tour. A frightened pheasant flies across our path as we stroll through a pristine prairie near Powder Horn Lake. Given the multifarious encroaching threats, preserving that habitat may require an even bigger miracle.

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