Southeast Environmental Task Force

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]

Hegewisch is part of the city of Chicago, but has the feel of a small Midwestern town, with quiet wide streets and small single-family homes. The neighborhood is several miles east of I-94, the Bishop Ford, off the 130th Street exit and across the Calumet River that bridges Lake Calumetand Wolf Lake. The trip to Hegewisch from the Loop involves passing landfills that appear as hills, now closed and incorporated into the Harborside International Golf Course, as well as the tower silos of the Chicago International Port on Lake Calumet, the Ford Motor Assembly Plant and some of the last remnants of Chicago’s steel, paint, and petroleum industries. Despite all this, Hegewisch cannot be easily classified as a neighborhood of heavy industry, since it is also ringed by hundreds of acres of wetlands, marshes, grasslands and, accordingly, is habitat to numerous flora and fauna. A 2002 Field Museum bioblitz, which organized a team to identify as many species as possible in a 24-hour period, catalogued more than 2,200 species of birds, reptiles and invertebrates in the Calumet Region surrounding Hegewisch.

The Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF) is housed in a glass-fronted corner storefront office at the corner of Baltimore Avenue and 133rd Street in downtown Hegewisch. Hegewisch’s situation, amid the foundations of Chicago’s industrial past, as well as some of the region’s most significant natural reserves, coincides with SETF’s mandate as a local environmental organization. SETF’s executive director, Mike Skuja, sees the organization as a balance between a classic environmental group, with concerns such as the protection of open space and environmental education, and an environmental justice advocate, mediating the complicated relationships between people and industry. In this latter capacity, SETF has developed a pollution prevention program that engages community members as watchdogs, reporting to SETF on occurrences like excessive dust, odors, or noise from local plants. Good Neighbor Dialogues (GNDs), which facilitate cooperative relationships with local industries such as Carmeuse Natural Chemicals or Sherwin Williams, are the second part of the pollution prevention program. This is essential since the working class communities like Hegewisch or Pullman that SETF serves rely on the dwindling employment opportunities of these industries, and an environmental group that saw its mission as shutting down industry would not be welcome.

Current GNDs are being developed with KCBX Terminals, on the Calumet River at 100th Street just south of the Skyway. KCBX stores coal on its expansive property and, given market fluctuations in coal prices, the company has had more coal than usual throughout the first half of 2009. It uses an automated sprinkler system to wet the coal piles to control dust, but the piles were being moved more frequently with the increased amount being stored, and the automated sprinkler system was not adjusted. Consequently, the sprinklers were watering empty ground and the coal dust was contaminating the air, causing problems for surrounding communities. SETF met with plant officials to serve as a voice for the community, and to, in effect, remind KCBX to watch its operations.

The organization’s power in the community and with both local industry and local government comes from its history. SETF was formed through the efforts of Marian Byrnes in 1989 as a coalition of 30 grassroots organizations working together to oppose a garbage incinerator proposed for the former Wisconsin Steel site at 106th Street and Torrence Avenue. Byrnes is a former Chicago Public Schools teacher who began educating herself as an environmental activist when a bus depot was proposed for the Van Vlissingen Prairie that abutted her home. For more than 30 years, she has been the leading activist in protecting the natural environments of the Calumet Region, spearheading SETF’s fights over landfills and the proposed Lake Calumet airport, which would have destroyed Hegewisch. Currently, Byrnes is in her 80s and has stepped back from day-to-day operations at SETF. The organization continues to be vitally important in the perpetual struggles necessary to strike a balance between economic life, human welfare, and the environment—struggles that define the Calumet Region. ◊

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