Some mornings, the smell seeping inside Jackie Montesdeoca’s home is so bad it wakes her up. She calls 311 or the Department of Public Health or the 12th Ward office. She tells them she can’t open her windows, and she can’t take her 1-year-old daughter, Ava, outside for a walk.

Asphalt season is starting in McKinley Park, and it announces itself by its stench, residents say.

“I have to kind of sniff outside like, does it smell clean yet?” said Montesdeoca, 36. “I don’t want (Ava) to be outside if it’s very strong, so it controls her day. We don’t know what exactly is in it.”

The MAT Asphalt plant generally takes a winter reprieve from hot mix asphalt production — the source of the strong odor. But now work has started up again.

The $10 million plant, which is partially owned by a member of a politically connected Chicago family, quietly went up in 2018. When operations started, residents complained because they weren’t given an opportunity for public input, and they were concerned about potential health hazards because the facility is near a park and at least two schools. Four years later, residents are trying to force the plant to shut down and move to a different location, farther away from people.

“It’s just very clear they chose this location because it’s convenient and will cut costs, and it’s at the expense of our clean air,” said Montesdeoca.

The Pollution Next Door: Many Chicagoans live near a health threat. In an occasional series, the Tribune is sharing their stories. Part One: The Southeast Side.

Jackie Montesdeoca feeds her daughter Ava, 11 months old, at their home in McKinley Park in Chicago, May 11, 2021. After picking up her daughter from day care and taking a walk in McKinley Park, Jackie said, "I'd love to open the windows but I can't in the summer," because of the smell of the MAT Asphalt plant across the street.
Jackie Montesdeoca feeds her daughter Ava, 11 months old, at their home in McKinley Park in Chicago, May 11, 2021. After picking up her daughter from day care and taking a walk in McKinley Park, Jackie said, “I’d love to open the windows but I can’t in the summer,” because of the smell of the MAT Asphalt plant across the street. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

According to complaint data from the Chicago Department of Public Health, close to 130 air pollution complaints have been documented for addresses nearthe plant since it opened, putting it within the top five most reported locations in the city for complaints of this kind.

Michael Tadin Jr., one of the plant’s owners, said a handful of these complaints occurred when the plant was not making asphalt.

“The first six visits we got this year from CDPH, we weren’t even operating,” said Tadin.

On a recent afternoon, McKinley Park residents enjoying their neighborhood’s namesake park just north of the plant say it isn’t just the smell: A woman practicing tai chi said she was worried because the plant is located near elementary schools; one person outside her home said she had seen white residue on the plants in her yard; a man on his daily walk said he grew up near a tar asphalt plant and it brought back memories of soot and dirt from his childhood; another person said he is healthy but had recently started feeling nauseated in the mornings.

From most of the park, where people fished in the lagoon and workers relaxed on their lunch breaks, the asphalt plant isn’t visible. Moving south, the silos appear. Two- or three-unit apartment buildings line Damen Avenue, the closest homes to the plant.

But the problem is not just with this plant, say activists, who believe the heavily Latino Southwest Side of Chicago is being sacrificed for industry.

“This is a clear case of environmental racism,” said Theresa McNamara, director of the Southwest Environmental Alliance.

‘Key to building the city’

At the south end of the park, the plant’s silos become visible and trucks come in and out of the entrance on Pershing Road. Inside the gates, piles of limestone and recycled asphalt await processing.

To make asphalt, limestone is combined with recycled asphalt pavement and heated and mixed in a large drum. Then asphalt cement, a petroleum-based liquid, is inserted as a binder. The facility, staffed by nine full-time employees, can make up to 400 tons of asphalt per hour, according to the company website. About 100 trucks transport limestone and asphalt in and out of the plant daily.

Michael Tadin Jr., one of the owners of MAT Asphalt plant in Chicago's McKinley Park, on May 27, 2021. He said there are emissions from the plant, but they are less than 30% of the legal limit.
Michael Tadin Jr., one of the owners of MAT Asphalt plant in Chicago’s McKinley Park, on May 27, 2021. He said there are emissions from the plant, but they are less than 30% of the legal limit. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

Tadin said there are emissions from the plant, but they are less than 30% of the legal limit.

“We water the ground twice a day; we water the piles twice a day. Everything in here is paved; there’s no dirt,” he said. “There’s no dust going outside.”

Tadin is the son of Michael Tadin, a longtime friend of former Mayor Richard M. Daley whose businesses have received tens of millions of dollars in city contracts, some without bidding. Tadin Jr.’s businesses have garnered city contracts as well.

Tadin said he feels he is bringing a competitive and modern service to the city.

“We have paving crews, transportation, lots of people have work because of this,” Tadin said. “Infrastructure is the key to building the city, it always has been.”

A heavy burden

Members of environmental activism groups in the neighborhood — at least two formed in the immediate wake of the plant’s erection — have widened their organizing tacticsbeyond MAT Asphalt. They want to target discrepancies between the Southwest Side and other areas of Chicago that involve the location of industries and health risks, especially those posed to the elderly and very young.

McNamara‘s group recently started working with scientists at University of Illinois at Chicago to study where pollution affects Chicagoans. “We need a paper trail of proof that more of our kids have asthma, or that we have more people with cancer.”

Chicago’s Latino students are worse off than Chicago’s Asian, Black or white students when it comes to proximity to facilities that release toxic emissions, according to a new report by UIC’s School of Public Health.

The report, part of a new series meant to highlight environmental disparities in the city, calculated CPS schools’ toxic emission burden and found several areas where the schools carry a higher-than-average burden: New City; Lower West Side, which includes Pilsen; and South Lawndale, which includes Little Village — three neighborhoods that surround McKinley Park.

The report does not address health outcomes but states the proximity of these kinds of facilities to CPS schools proves that environmental equity is not being prioritized because the facilities are not randomly distributed throughout the city.

“MAT is just one more issue to what already exists in this area,” said UIC associate professorMichael Cailas, who worked on the report. “Everyone says that it’s not their emissions that are creating the smell, but when you have this many (polluters), it really doesn’t matter.”

Montesdeoca, who works for a Chicago-based environmental organization, lives on a street just north of the plant. She and her husband decided to move to McKinley Park from the city’s North Side in 2015 because they wanted an affordable home near a green space. When she became pregnant in 2019, they temporarily moved to Berwyn.

“I was more sensitive to smell; I felt nauseous a lot,” said Montesdeoca, who said she has asthma. “It was a big reason we left for a while.”

Montesdeoca estimated she’s called the 12th Ward office more than 100 times over the past three years.

“It feels like we’re secluded from the rest of Chicago on this issue. If you’re not going through it every day, you don’t have to take ownership over this issue that affects the next community over,” she said. “We’re all paying to pave the streets. Unfortunately, the city seems to think that it’s OK for our health to be at the expense of that work.”

Cumulative burden

Last month, Mayor Lori Lightfoot instructed the Department of Public Health to conduct an investigation of the health risks for the community surrounding a shredding facility that was close to opening on the Southeast Side. The location of the shredder raised civil rights concerns, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, who wrote a letter to Lightfoot about the facility.

“This neighborhood currently ranks at the highest levels for many pollution indicators used by U.S. EPA’s EJSCREEN tool, including fine particulate matter, air toxics, cancer risk, respiratory hazard, traffic proximity, lead paint, Superfund site proximity, hazardous waste proximity, and wastewater discharges,” said Regan.

Community members on the Southeast Side were saying the same thing years ago.

In late 2018, just months after the asphalt plant in McKinley Park opened, the Natural Resources Defense Council did an analysis of Chicago neighborhoods using the same EPA data. The resulting map shows several West, Southwest and Southeast Side neighborhoods carrying the highest environmental burdens — they are surrounded by industry and filled with people from vulnerable socioeconomic groups.

Cumulative impact means that one community is disproportionately dealing with several overlapping environmental and socioeconomic factors at once, said Yukyan Lam, who worked on the 2018 defense council analysis as a postdoctoral fellow.

“From an environmental justice point of view, there are certain communities that bear the brunt of environmental pollution. They live in areas where they get more than their fair share of hazardous exposures,” said Lam. “The other thing we know is that they’re typically not exposed to one thing at a time; it’s not just air pollution. They might be facing air pollution and contaminated land, or contaminated drinking water, or toxic products in their homes.”

Demographic factors also play a role here, said Lam.

“A pound of pollution is going to affect someone without access to health care or someone who’s low-income worse than somebody who’s not in those disadvantaged social circumstances,” Lam said.

A 2020 air and health quality report from the Chicago Department of Public Health also pointed out this difference, particularly caused by industry and traffic pollutants on the South and West sides.

This is not lost on residents of McKinley Park, which is 56% Latino and 24% Asian, according to Chicago Health Atlas data.

Jacob Soto, who has lived in the area for more than two years, said he and his girlfriend attended a drive-in protest at the asphalt plant last year, where cars blocked the entrance so trucks couldn’t exit. Soto and his girlfriend live just north of the plant; he said he wakes up some mornings nauseated, but when the smell goes away, he’s fine again.

Soto, who is first-generation Mexican American, grew up in Niles and lived in Lincoln Park before moving to McKinley Park.

He noted the contrast between the North Side and McKinley Park when dealing with neighborhood concerns like speed traps, construction and industry.

“The way things are handled there versus the way they’re handled here is vastly different. This problem doesn’t even rear its head there; it wouldn’t be allowed to happen there,” said Soto.

Soto said he and his girlfriend are looking to move.

“I like this neighborhood; I’d want to buy property here,” he said, “but I don’t want to raise a family here unless this gets figured out.”

‘They’re polluting you with your own money’

Earlier this month, McNamara, the Southwest Environmental Alliance director, organized a rally in front of the asphalt plant, one of the first public environmental events they’d held since the pandemic started. She and other organizers built a “Doctor Who”-style time machine and put on a skit satirizing Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Ald. George Cardenas, 12th, and MAT Asphalt owner Michael Tadin Jr.

Theresa McNamara, chair of the Southwest Environmental Alliance, adjusts an effigy of Ald. George Cardenas, 12th, before a protest across the street from the MAT Asphalt plant in Chicago's McKinley Park, May 15, 2021.
Theresa McNamara, chair of the Southwest Environmental Alliance, adjusts an effigy of Ald. George Cardenas, 12th, before a protest across the street from the MAT Asphalt plant in Chicago’s McKinley Park, May 15, 2021. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

Cars passing by honked at the gathering, showing support, and a street sweeping truck rolled back and forth on the road closest to the protest, its noise drowning out rally speakers and eventually prompting a rally attendee to start recording its rounds in front of the group.

McNamara and other speakers focused on the fact that Cardenas, who serves as chairman of the city’s Health and Environmental Protection Committee, has received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Tadin businesses for his political action committee.

Cardenas, who lives down the street from the plant, said he has heard from concerned community groups and from those who want the area to remain a manufacturing hub.

“I am focused on modernizing the (Central Manufacturing District), so that it serves its intended purpose of being a job source as it was for generations,” Cardenas said in an email. “I will continue to tighten regulations and update our environmental and land-use policies to hold industries accountable when they put the health of our communities at risk.”

The historic Central Manufacturing District is a 265-acre industrial park that borders McKinley Park and has easy access to the rail yard and the South Branch of the Chicago River. Today, most of the large warehouses along Pershing Road are vacant.

McKinley Park resident Kim Wasserman, who leads a Little Village-based environmental advocacy group, said she’s been helping educate people on MAT Asphalt.

“We’re making sure people know that MAT Asphalt has contracts with the city, that they’re polluting you with your own money,” she said. “We want to make sure people understand where their tax money is going.”

Wasserman said she’d heard the argument of the plant bringing jobs into the neighborhood, but it wasn’t a good argument.

“We understand that jobs are needed, but at the cost of what?” she said. “If we’re going to talk about jobs, let’s have a conversation about jobs, and how good those jobs are and what is actually being provided to those workers. We’re concerned about everybody, including the workers.”

‘We don’t know’

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Meanwhile, back in the park, some residents continue to meet.

Grace Contreras and Elizabeth Chan practice tai chi occasionally, though they said their regular Sunday group stopped meeting during the pandemic. They said their friends are upset about smelling asphalt while walking or jogging.

Chan and Contreras, 60 and 70, respectively, said they are at the park almost every day.

Contreras, who said she bikes and swims, feels that tai chi helps her move better.

They both said they love the park and enjoy seeing different groups take advantage of the space — from older Latino men walking together to kids participating in softball games to bird-watchers gathering by the water.

Recently, Contreras said, she started going to a different park from time to time, because of the smell from the plant.

“In the park, you’re supposed to stay healthy and active, and that’s what they tell us because we’re older,” said Contreras. “It’s a shame for the children because who knows? We don’t know. They’re just growing up and in 10 years, 20 years they’re going to see the effects of this.”

Original article: chicagotribune.com

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