As regulators continue monitoring emissions of manganese at the Southeast Side storage site of S.H. Bell Co., new air monitoring data shows alarming levels of the brain-damaging heavy metal near another industrial facility in the area, and the development has city officials exploring further restrictions on companies that handle manganese.
Watco Transloading, at 2926 E. 126th Place, was forced to install the monitoring equipment earlier this year as part of an ongoing investigation by regulators to find sources of neurotoxins in the area, including manganese, a metal that is essential to steelmaking but that can cause Parkinson’s-like symptoms after prolonged exposure.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released monitoring data for a six-week period in September and October showing an average manganese concentration near Watco’s storage terminal along the Calumet River of 0.416 micrograms per cubic meter, which exceeds the federal health safety limit for manganese of 0.3 micrograms per cubic meter.
“These preliminary monitoring results are informing the agency as it evaluates its next steps,” an EPA spokesperson said Wednesday.
The EPA has not cited Watco for violating the federal Clean Air Act, though last year, the agency cited S.H. Bell after finding levels of manganese that exceeded the federal health safety threshold at its storage site less than 5 miles down the river from Watco. That violation, issued in August 2017, was based on four months of air monitoring data that showed average manganese concentrations of 0.32 micrograms per cubic meter, which is lower than the levels found this fall at Watco.
According to the EPA, 3,780 people live within a mile of Watco’s facility, including nearly 1,000 residents under the age of 18 and 234 children ages 5 and younger.
“It’s very clear this facility has problems,” said Meleah Geertsma, a Chicago-based attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council who is working with Southeast Side residents to combat pollution-related health risks. “The shorter-term average, which we believe is relevant from a health perspective, is very high. And EPA has acted based on only slightly more data at S.H. Bell’s facility. They should be taking aggressive actions against this facility.”
Watco said several of the highest manganese measurements occurred on days when no manganese-containing materials were being loaded or unloaded at its facility, possibly suggesting that other companies contributed to the pollution picked up by the monitors.
“Watco Companies, LLC is dedicated to environmental compliance and safety, especially as it relates to monitoring air quality at our Chicago Ferro Terminal,” the Kansas-based company said in a statement. “We are engaged and cooperating fully with the EPA in evaluating and investigating the latest EPA monitoring results to understand the source of these readings. Watco has invested substantial time and resources to minimize any environmental impact our operations may have and will continue to further our efforts in coordination with the EPA.”
Watco handles 650,000 tons of steel, alloy and related materials at the facility, about 27 percent of which – some 175,000 tons – include manganese-bearing alloys, according to EPA and city records.
Last year, inspectors with the Chicago Department of Public Health found that Watco had failed to control dust emissions of manganese and other metals, resulting in a violation from the city. EPA inspectors also documented uncontrolled dust at several areas of Watco’s facility, noting that “dust was escaping into the environment through the exit doors.”
The air monitoring data released by the EPA this week comes as the agency responds to high levels of manganese and neurotoxic lead found in the soil outside Southeast Side homes. On Tuesday, the EPA sent a letter to S.H. Bell indicating that it plans to excavate contaminated soil from a handful of properties with manganese levels exceeding a federal threshold for removal.
Meanwhile, 10th Ward Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza was scheduled to meet this week with city public health officials and lawyers to assess the city’s role in responding to the manganese threat. Under consideration is a temporary moratorium on manganese operations until further protections are in place to protect residents, a move that public health advocates have been demanding for months.
Earlier this year, the City Council approved an ordinance amending city zoning rules to prohibit new facilities from storing or handling materials containing more than trace amounts of manganese. But advocates said the ordinance fell short of protecting residents because it exempts facilities that manufacture manganese, rather than store or process it, and does not require filter-based monitors that would help pinpoint emissions of the heavy metal.
“Southeast Side families cannot wait for government agencies to negotiate minor changes to the way that polluters like Watco do business while our families are exposed to brain-damaging chemicals,” said Gina Ramirez, a Southeast Side mother and member of the advocacy group Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, in a statement issued Tuesday. “A growing list of dirty industry has placed a disproportionate burden on our community, and the city and our mayor must put an end to this injustice. The city has an absolute duty to ensure the health of its residents and must preference people over profits.”
A recently published study of children in Ohio found a significant link between higher concentrations of manganese in hair samples and declines in IQ, mental processing speed and working memory.
Preliminary results from an ongoing study of toxic metals on the Southeast Side found that children there had higher levels of manganese in their toenails than children in other parts of the city. The University of Illinois at Chicago researchers behind the study said that it was too early to draw conclusions about the link between manganese exposure and health issues among the study’s subjects.