[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #3 in September 2006]

The Northwest Incinerator at 700 N. Kildare between Chicago Ave. and Lake St. was constructed with great fanfare in 1971 as a state-of-the-art, waste-to-energy garbage burner. It promised to reduce the city’s volume of trash headed for landfills by 90%, to be safe and pollution-free, and to produce energy at the same time. It burned for close to a quarter century, selling steam to the Brachs Candy factory on Chicago Ave., and dropping lead and other pollutants emitted from its double stacks onto nearby neighborhoods, which were, for the most part, poor black communities 1. In 1993, after over 20 years of operation, it was spitting out somewhere between 5 and 17 pounds of lead per hour from its stacks 2. In the same year, a broad coalition of groups and individuals formed under the name waste (Westside Alliance for a Safe and Toxic-free Environment) to force the city to shut down the incinerator, which it finally did in 1996.

I first learned about the incinerator when I was researching the history of Stearns Quarry, the 350-foot deep, 17-acre hole in Bridgeport that received the incinerator’s ash for 16 years. Then after reading David Naguib Pellow’s book, Garbage Wars, which describes the campaign as including a mixed-race coalition of nearby residents, environmental organizations, neighborhood activist groups, and others concerned with public health, social justice, and garbage policy, I became interested in learning more about the environmental justice campaign organized to shut the incinerator down. As a relatively new Westside resident I wanted to know if this effort had an ongoing legacy—if it had resulted in continued alliances or if the organizing work had died with the incinerator. Here I am interpreting solidarity as continuity with, and recognition of, this piece of history—specifically, recognition of the work that was done on this campaign (the kind of work that tends to disappear once goals are reached or abandoned); and recognition of the lines of connection that might be drawn between this recent history and present efforts. Besides reading Pellow’s book, I talked with several former waste participants, and found information online.

The world is small; one way or another, we have to live with what we throw away, even if we would rather pretend that it could disappear. How we store and transform this excess materiality, and where we put those storage or transformation centers, are questions with constantly evolving and never-satisfactory answers. But the question of how close we live to these places depends on who “we” are. Who lives near landfills, or on top of them after they have been capped; whose groundwater is contaminated, whose air and whose soil, and whose health is compromised, result from deliberate decisions, and are the sorts of questions that initiated the anti-toxics and early environmental justice struggles in the ’60s and ’70s.

The Northwest Incinerator was located on the Chicago Ave. “industrial corridor,” a decision that makes a certain kind of sense given that the facility was meant to generate steam for industrial use. But of course there are residential communities all around this corridor. In the 60s and into the 70s, the surrounding neighborhoods of Austin went through dramatic change from primarily white to primarily black communities. When the NW incinerator came on line in 1971 it was understood as a positive alternative to landfills. After the stricter controls imposed by the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 it seemed that we might run out of landfill space, and the energy crisis of the early 1970s was starting to snowball.

Burning waste to generate power seemed an idea that could kill two birds. While some incinerator operations separated trash beforehand and only burned some of it, this mass combustion incinerator burned everything, then salvaged for metal scrap among the ash. But there weren’t clear standards for regulating toxins in incinerator smoke, and no one really knew what went up and out of the stacks since household trash could have anything in it. It seems that a lot of people still wanted to believe that if you burned garbage, it really could disappear—even environmentalists, many of whom supported the new waste-to-energy incinerators. There were three other incinerators in the city at the time – Medill (Fullerton and Ashland), Calumet (103rd and Doty), and Southside (34th and Lawndale), all of which were closed in the mid 1970s for violations of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s particulate matter count. Northwest kept going, apparently passing the tests that the others flunked. But there was speculation about how reliable the testing was, considering the huge inertia behind such a major capital investment by the city (“the first and biggest large-scale, mass combustion resource recovery facility in the Western Hemisphere”), as well as the ideological investment in its providing a two-pronged solution (both waste reduction and energy) 3.

A number of policy changes in the ’80s and early ’90s began to feed resistance to the incinerator. In 1988 Illinois passed the Retail Rate Law, which functioned as a no-interest loan to private incinerator operators and encouraged a dozen new waste-to-energy incinerator proposals for the Chicago area, threatening to make Cook County “incineration capital of the world” 4. The law required utilities to purchase energy from incinerators at the retail rate rather than at a discounted rate, but then gave utilities tax relief equal to the difference between the retail rate and the prior discounted rate. This was basically a cash gift to the incinerator operators, but also a galvanizing moment for those against incineration, who shifted into gear to try to repeal the Retail Rate Law, which threatened to invite about 25 more waste-to-energy smokestacks into Illinois.

In 1993 the NW Incinerator repeatedly failed its particulate matter tests by a wide margin, and the epa issued a warning. The City of Chicago didn’t respond but eventually announced they would rebuild the incinerator for $150 million in taxpayer dollars (planning to give the contract for the new construction to a company on which Mayor Daley’s brother was a board member). Distress over the epa’s findings, and outrage over the city’s lack of an appropriate response, led to the organization of WASTE.

WASTE was started by Ann Irving of Citizens for a Better Environment, along with other established environmental organizations that worked citywide, including Center for Neighborhood Technology, and the Chicago Recycling Coalition, along with two neighborhood-based organizations, South Austin Community Coalition Council (SACCC) and Northwest Austin Council. Eventually 34 organizations became waste members 5. The work was done through non-binding referendum campaigns, protest rallies (some at the incinerator site), educational campaigns, developing alternative proposals to incineration, lobbying the state legislature, door-to-door organizing, and filing lawsuits 6. Everyone I spoke with confirmed that it was a mixed race coalition, with strong black voices. But some racial tensions developed near the end of the campaign. Some black members felt that some white members didn’t really want black participants to take leadership, and some white members claimed that leadership was hard to develop in communities where economic survival trumped concerns about pollution. (An environmental justice perspective sees these concerns as inseparable). There were also perceived tensions about who “legitimately” represented the African-American community—did this exclude educated black members of waste who didn’t live in the neighborhood? This is not a full-scale research project in which I can fully investigate these complex tensions. However, even with the little information I have, I wonder if the initiation of the waste campaign in connection to city and state-wide pollution issues, rather than it having been generated from within the communities directly affected, might help explain why the momentum of the coalition didn’t continue as it might have, to address other local issues related to environmental justice.

In 1996 the Retail Rate Law was successfully repealed. This withdrawal of the subsidy put an immediate damper on new incinerator building, including the plan to rebuild Northwest. The city shut the thing down. While many claim the repeal had a more direct effect on the incinerator’s demise than WASTE’s organizing efforts, it is impossible to separate them, since some of waste’s efforts also went towards repealing the legislation. But what happened to all that work of coalition building?

WASTE had raised enough money to hire a staff person, and the intention was that the organization would continue to work on related issues. But there were differences of opinion on what those issues should be. Orrin Williams said that he had wanted to expand waste’s concerns to sustainable green economic development even before the incinerator battle had been won, and he remembers being told categorically by another member, “You people just don’t get it! The incinerator is the issue!” But even with differences of opinion about the direction of the organization, members had intended to continue its work—somehow. However, irregular bookkeeping by the sole staff member led to his being fired and the organization hit an unexpectedly abrupt end.

In 1999 a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department on behalf of the epa against the City of Chicago was settled on behalf of the epa. The suit charged for damages caused from running the Northwest incinerator in violation of the Clean Air Act from 1993 to 1996. The City had to pay a penalty of $200,000; spend $450,000 to remove and dispose of contaminated soils; spend $100,000 to construct a Lead Safe House to serve as a temporary residence for lowincome Chicagoans while lead abatement work was undertaken in their homes; and spend $150,000 on a Lead Abatement Project in Northwest Chicago 7.

If waste’s broad-based coalition didn’t continue organizing on the Westside, some of the former members I spoke with are continuing their work in other important ways. Orrin Williams is working on food security, job development, and economic self-determination on the South Side through The Center for Urban Transformation, with urban agriculture as a central motor to the work. Julie Samuels is executive director of Openlands, and is working with community gardening as a positive organizing agenda. She is also running as a Green Party candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Illinois in November. Bill Eyring is a Senior Engineer at the Center for Neighborhood Technology. Lillian Drummond and Bob Vondrasek are both still working with the South Austin Community Coalition Council. According to Vondrasek, most community organizations work on 3 issues: housing, education and safety—but saccc works on every issue in the community, including healthcare, labor, and the environment, as well as the other three. Saccc has always seen lowincome utility issues as one of the organization’s main concerns, and some of their current work investigates price gouging by gas companies in the current “energy crisis.”

Part of the defunct incinerator complex, which still stands at 700 N. Kildare, is used as a waste transfer station by the city. As for Stearns Quarry: The Chicago Park District is now reconstituting the site as an unprecedented type of urban park, with dramatic topography, a fishing hole, a sledding hill, a “natural” amphitheater, and an elaborately engineered water management system. This system includes an underground pump to remove existing leachate draining toxins from the buried incinerator ash, and an over-ground sequence of ponds that collect and filter surface rainwater and prevent it from contributing to the leachate below. The park will also include a fossil wall, showing millions of years of sedimentation. Human-produced sedimentation (incinerator ash plus construction debris) filled the same cavity to the brim in only 25 years.

Thanks to: Bob Vondrasek, Bill Eyring, Orrin Williams, Julie Samuels, Kevin Greene

  • In addition to mercury, lead, and other heavy metals, incinerator ash contained varying amounts of dioxins, furans, and PCBs.
  • Sources vary on this 1993 pounds of lead per hour figure: 5.7 lbs, 11 lbs, and 17 lbs.
  • David Naguib Pellow, Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002), 132.
  • Mark Sendzik and Wim Wiewel, “Solid Waste Incineration in the Chicago Metropolitan Area: The Battle over the Illinois Retail Rate Law” (A Great Cities Working Paper, College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, University of Illinois at Chicago, 1996), 12.
  • US EPA, “Office of Environmental Justice Small Grants Program FY 96 Award Recipients,” (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 1996), p.16
  • Sendzik and Wiewel, p. 13
  • USDOJ, “Justice Department, EPA Announce Settlement with Chicago,” in Office of Public Affairs Press Releases web site and database (USDOJ, 29 April 1999); accessed July 2006.

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