A Southeast Side industrial facility that handles toxic metals has 90 days to install air monitors after Chicago denied the company’s request to wave the monitoring requirement, according to a letter issued by the city this week.
Watco Transloading applied for the exemption this summer for its storage terminal along the Calumet River that sits just north of the Hegewisch neighborhood and directly across the street from a park that hosts youth baseball games.
In its request, Watco – which is owned by Watco Companies, LLC, one of the largest short-line railroad operators in the U.S. – stated that its operations minimize emissions of toxins, including brain-damaging manganese dust. The company also said it stores all manganese-containing materials indoors, which it said reduces the risk of exposure to nearby residents.
But Chicago’s Department of Public Health found that Watco has failed to control dust emissions, citing violations of city regulations observed during several recent inspections, according to a letter sent to the company on Wednesday.
On Sept. 1, inspectors from the city and Environmental Protection Agency found dust emissions at several points throughout the facility, noting that “dust was escaping into the environment through the exit doors.” A city inspection the following week again revealed dust problems, including from uncovered trucks that further dispersed the dust while driving through the facility. The letter did not say what type of dust was observed, but according to Watco's variance request, 29 percent of the 650,000 tons of steel, alloy and associated materials handled at the facility contain manganese.
During the first visit, Watco’s facility manager told inspectors that its dust collection system was not working because it “was not being operated properly by the staff,” according to the city’s letter. The company said it then re-trained employees on operating the dust collector during loading and unloading operations.
Another factor in the city’s decision was a 2015 EPA report that found elevated levels of manganese dust at the facility while it was owned by energy giant Kinder Morgan, which sold the facility to Watco earlier this year. The city said Watco had made some changes to the facility since taking ownership but concluded that “the operations are largely the same,” and that Watco “has not provided evidence” to show that the improvements will prevent dust emissions.
A Watco representative could not immediately be reached for comment.
The company previously told Chicago Tonight that since taking over the facility, it has “invested additional time, money and resources to improve fugitive dust emissions,” such as buying a new fog machine and installing a new asphalt road.
“Watco’s intent is to make this facility one of, if not the, most efficient and safe [facilities] for this industry in Chicago,” the company said.
On Thursday, a coalition of lawyers and advocacy groups representing Southeast Side residents issued a statement on the city’s decision.
“Watco asked the city to look the other way while [it] continues to release manganese dust, a dangerous neurotoxin, into our community, putting the heath of residents, especially children, at risk,” they said.
The statement was issued jointly by the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, Southeast Environmental Task Force, Northwestern Priztker Law School’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic, Chicago Legal Clinic, Natural Resources Defense Council and Moms Clean Air Force.
The groups also called on the city to take additional steps to protect residents from manganese dust.
“While the Department of Public Health did the right thing by refusing to bend the rules for Watco, the city needs to get this dangerous neurotoxin completely out of our community,” they said. “Curbing manganese exposure on the Southeast Side must be part of a larger solution that includes addressing the cumulative impacts of toxic pollution on Southeast Side communities.”
The city has been investigating manganese sources in the area since the spring and has said it plans to complete the study by early next year.
“We need the evidence to support decisions and regulations we make to ensure the safety of the community,” Public Health Commissioner Julie Morita told Chicago Tonight about the ongoing study. “We are actively working on evaluating the companies in the area and making sure that they are adhering to our regulations.”
Another Southeast Side company, Watco competitor S.H. Bell Co., was forced to install air monitors earlier this year as a result of past federal violations.
Dec. 21: Children on Chicago’s Southeast Side have higher levels of manganese in their toenails than children in other parts of the city, according to preliminary results of a study aiming to measure the impact of toxic metals on children’s health.
Nov. 6: Environmental advocates say a Southeast Side storage company violated city standards for air pollution earlier this year. But the company disagrees, asserting that the state’s more lenient law applies.
Oct. 30: A Southeast Side company tipped off regulators to its own violation of city air pollution standards, documents submitted to the city show.