Seeking Environmental Justice, Community Battles Railroad and Rahm

Jeff Schuhrke August 22, 2013

An aerial view of Norfolk Southern's intermodal freight yard in Englewood, on Chicago's south side. (Photo by David Schalliol)

Res­i­dents of Chicago’s pre­dom­i­nant­ly African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty of Engle­wood are fight­ing May­or Rahm Emanuel and Nor­folk South­ern (NS) — a major rail­road cor­po­ra­tion that post­ed $1.7 bil­lion in prof­its last year—over a pro­posed freight yard expan­sion in their neigh­bor­hood that they argue will sig­nif­i­cant­ly increase diesel pol­lu­tion, which is linked to asth­ma attacks, can­cer and heart dis­ease. Com­mu­ni­ty activists say NS and the city have large­ly ignored their concerns.

Engle­wood res­i­dents first learned in late 2011 of the Emanuel-backed plan to expand NS’s exist­ing 140-acre inter­modal ter­mi­nal at 47th Street — where trains and trucks swap freight con­tain­ers — by an addi­tion­al 84 acres. At the time, NS had been qui­et­ly buy­ing up pri­vate prop­er­ties in the area for about three years and had start­ed bull­doz­ing them. Only after the Res­i­dent Asso­ci­a­tion of Greater Engle­wood (RAGE) exposed this appar­ent land grab and it became pub­lic knowl­edge that the com­pa­ny was in talks with the city to pur­chase 105 city-owned lots for the expan­sion was a pub­lic meet­ing final­ly con­vened with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the railroad.

“[NS] came with guns,” says Asi­a­ha But­ler, pres­i­dent of RAGE. They had armed secu­ri­ty at a com­mu­ni­ty meet­ing at a high school, as if they were going to be attacked.” She says this was only one exam­ple of a pat­tern of dis­re­spect by the com­pa­ny toward the residents.

Rev. John Ellis, who lives near the planned expan­sion site, says he is par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­gust­ed with the city. “[The city has] been ter­ri­ble,” he says, cit­ing the lack of prop­er noti­fi­ca­tion giv­en to the res­i­dents of the plan. They feel they don’t have to noti­fy any­body — this is a black neigh­bor­hood so who the hell cares?’ I mean it, that’s basi­cal­ly what it is.”

Along with fel­low res­i­dent John Paul Jones, Rev. Ellis helped found Sus­tain­able Engle­wood Ini­tia­tives (SEI) last year, a non­prof­it focused on mit­i­gat­ing the envi­ron­men­tal and health risks posed by the freight yard expan­sion. SEI is not opposed to the project, but is seek­ing a fair deal for the com­mu­ni­ty. Eco­nom­ic growth is great, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of people’s health,” Ellis says.

Rail­road­ed

Locat­ed on Chicago’s south side, Engle­wood has an unem­ploy­ment rate of 21.3 per­cent and the community’s per capi­ta annu­al income is just under $12,000. The pop­u­la­tion has plum­met­ed from more than 97,000 in 1960 to about 30,000 today. Since Emanuel became may­or, a half-dozen pub­lic schools in and around Engle­wood have been closed. Last year there were 21 report­ed homi­cides in the community.

When the hous­ing mar­ket col­lapsed in 2008, home prices in Engle­wood plum­met­ed and the com­mu­ni­ty saw one of the high­est fore­clo­sure rates in the city. Activists argue that NS took advan­tage of the sit­u­a­tion to swoop in and buy up homes for as lit­tle as $25,000. The com­pa­ny stress­es that hous­es were sold at fair mar­ket value.”

Relo­ca­tion and replace­ment costs rather than fair mar­ket val­ue would be a start­ing point because fair mar­ket val­ue isn’t fair to any­one of col­or,” says Nao­mi Davis, pres­i­dent of Blacks In Green, an eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment orga­ni­za­tion sup­port­ing SEI. If [NS] want­ed to pay… to relo­cate peo­ple, they could cer­tain­ly afford to do that.”

NS also points out that hous­es have been sold vol­un­tar­i­ly.” How­ev­er, activists say peo­ple who refuse to sell to NS are in an impos­si­ble posi­tion, as their homes will end up as islands” with­in the freight yard, sur­round­ed by diesel pol­lu­tion. Even if you stay and the rail­road stonewalls you, you’re poi­soned out of your home,” says Davis. Res­i­dents who have refused to sell thus far fear the city will ulti­mate­ly invoke emi­nent domain to force them out.

The res­i­dents’ con­cerns have been val­i­dat­ed by a recent analy­sis from the Envi­ron­men­tal Law and Pol­i­cy Cen­ter (ELPC), a Chica­go-based non­prof­it. As report­ed in the Chica­go Tri­bune last month, the ELPC, using a com­put­er mod­el cre­at­ed by the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency and inputting data pro­vid­ed by NS, found that diesel pol­lu­tion from the planned expan­sion would increase air-borne soot to lev­els that would vio­late fed­er­al air qual­i­ty stan­dards, and expose sev­er­al schools to dan­ger­ous lev­els of nitro­gen diox­ide emissions.

Diesel pol­lu­tion is strong­ly asso­ci­at­ed with asth­ma attacks, and Engle­wood already has twice the hos­pi­tal­iza­tion rate for asth­ma as the rest of the city. African Amer­i­cans — who make up most of the Engle­wood com­mu­ni­ty — are three times more like­ly to die from asth­ma than whites. Not­ing that asth­ma is dead­lier than gang vio­lence, Davis calls the expan­sion plan gang­bang­ing with­out a gun.”

A part­ner­ship, or a shell game?

The Engle­wood freight yard expan­sion project might nev­er have been planned if not for fed­er­al fund­ing (via Pres­i­dent Obama’s 2009 stim­u­lus bill) for rail improve­ments in met­ro­pol­i­tan Chica­go. The multi­bil­lion-dol­lar Chica­go Region Envi­ron­men­tal And Trans­porta­tion Effi­cien­cy pro­gram (CRE­ATE) — a pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship between local, state and fed­er­al agen­cies and pri­vate rail­road com­pa­nies, includ­ing NS — was designed to be the long-sought solu­tion to pas­sen­ger and freight rail con­ges­tion in Chicago.

Among CRE­ATE’s 70 projects are two — the Engle­wood Fly­over and the Grand Cross­ing Rail Project—that will increase the move­ment of freight trains in and out of NS’s inter­modal yard by pro­vid­ing addi­tion­al track for Amtrak and Metra com­muter trains, there­by reduc­ing con­ges­tion. With the more effi­cient move­ment of goods that would come from these projects — both of which remain unfin­ished— NS had good rea­son to expand its freight yard in Engle­wood, accord­ing to Jean-Paul Thomas, a mem­ber of the Cit­i­zens Coali­tion on the Grand Cross­ing Rail­road Project, a group try­ing to ensure a fair deal for res­i­dents affect­ed by CRE­ATE projects.

But Rev. Ellis says the pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship amounts to a shell game.” With CRE­ATE, he argues, pub­lic enti­ties like Metra, Amtrak, and the U.S., Illi­nois and Chica­go Depart­ments of Trans­porta­tion that are seek­ing rail improve­ments can blame the pri­vate rail­road com­pa­nies for any prob­lems caused by the improve­ments. NS plays the hatch­et man,” says Ellis, dri­ving peo­ple out of their homes for land that will over­lap with rail improve­ment projects, and pub­lic offi­cials can tell con­cerned res­i­dents, That’s not us, that’s Nor­folk Southern.”

In March, under pres­sure from Emanuel, the Chica­go City Coun­cil approved the sale of 105 city-owned lots in Engle­wood to NS for $1.1 mil­lion. A third of these parcels lie with­in two tax incre­ment financ­ing (TIF) dis­tricts. TIFs divert prop­er­ty tax rev­enues into a spe­cial fund meant for eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment with­in des­ig­nat­ed blight­ed” areas, though as the Chica­go Read­ers Ben Joravsky has long report­ed, TIF funds often wind up ben­e­fit­ing wealthy cor­po­ra­tions and well-con­nect­ed developers.

The rules gov­ern­ing the Engle­wood Neigh­bor­hood TIF and the 47th Street TIF — where 34 city-owned parcels acquired by NS are locat­ed — state that rede­vel­op­ment with­in the TIF bound­aries must be for res­i­den­tial or open-space pur­pos­es. To get around this require­ment, Emanuel and the com­pa­ny want to sim­ply amend the TIFs by reclas­si­fy­ing the land use from res­i­den­tial” to light indus­tri­al.” The fact that the land sale was bro­kered before the TIFs were amend­ed is unusu­al, reveal­ing the city’s haste and appar­ent dis­re­gard for procedure.

Com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers wor­ry the amend­ments will allow NS to receive TIF rev­enues for the inter­modal expan­sion, but offi­cials at the city’s Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Eco­nom­ic Devel­op­ment (HED) insist this won’t hap­pen. Activists are also press­ing the city to extract con­ces­sions from NS before any amend­ments to the TIFs are passed — includ­ing mea­sures to sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce diesel pol­lu­tion, devel­op green spaces, and ensure real eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties for the res­i­dents. Alder­man Willie Cochran — whose 20th Ward encom­pass­es the area of the inter­modal expan­sion — met with NS and HED regard­ing con­ces­sions, but res­i­dents say he didn’t con­sult them before recent­ly reach­ing an agreement.

Com­mu­ni­ty activists and sup­port­ers are call­ing for the rail­road to install diesel pol­lu­tion fil­ters on all its equip­ment, which could reduce pol­lu­tion by as much as 95 per­cent. In its agree­ment with Cochran, NS has promised it will upgrade its cur­rent fleet of hostler trucks in the yard to meet strin­gent Tier 4” fed­er­al emis­sions stan­dards with­in a decade. But com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers are not sat­is­fied, as the com­pa­ny has said noth­ing about its lift and load­ing equip­ment, nor has it tak­en into account the added equip­ment that will result from the expansion.

The city and NS are also promis­ing 400 new per­ma­nent jobs, but res­i­dents are skep­ti­cal. We’d like to have a list of all com­pa­nies, job titles, loca­tions and pay of these 400 per­ma­nent jobs,” says Davis. We need to scru­ti­nize these job num­bers metic­u­lous­ly, because the devil…lives in those details.”

It is also ques­tion­able what kind of employ­er NS would be. Ear­li­er this year, the Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health Admin­is­tra­tion fined the com­pa­ny over $1 mil­lion for fir­ing three employ­ees as retal­i­a­tion for report­ing work­place injuries.

Not just a news blurb’

On August 15, the Chica­go Plan Com­mis­sion con­vened its month­ly hear­ing at City Hall to vote on the TIF amend­ments. Alder­man Cochran and two NS rep­re­sen­ta­tives joined John Mol­loy, eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment coor­di­na­tor at HED, to endorse the proposal.

More than two dozen Engle­wood res­i­dents and allies wear­ing SEI T‑shirts packed the gallery, half of who addressed the com­mis­sion to express their oppo­si­tion to the amend­ments. Each per­son was allowed three min­utes to speak. Ellis remind­ed the com­mis­sion­ers, We are a real community…not just a news blurb or a headline.”

Nan­cy Loeb, direc­tor of the North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty Envi­ron­men­tal Advo­ca­cy Cen­ter and attor­ney for SEI, told the com­mis­sion that pro­ce­dur­al require­ments for amend­ing the TIFs — includ­ing hold­ing a pub­lic hear­ing and pro­vid­ing pub­lic notice — had been vio­lat­ed and could be the basis for a future legal challenge.

Say­ing he was extreme­ly dis­turbed,” Com­mis­sion­er John Bryant motioned to post­pone the vote for one month to allow time for the res­i­dents’ con­cerns to be addressed. All across the coun­try these enti­ties have always [been] placed in poor com­mu­ni­ties that do not have the finan­cial or the polit­i­cal oomph to stop them; they’re nev­er tak­en to com­mu­ni­ties of strength and eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal clout,” Bryant said.

Cochran walked out of the hear­ing as his con­stituents offered their com­ments, and Bryant not­ed his absence: I don’t under­stand how the alder­man could have left.” After 49th Ward Alder­man Joe Moore also expressed dis­ap­point­ment” that Cochran had stepped out, the alder­man reap­peared. Bryant asked him how many meet­ings had been held with the community.

To give you a total num­ber of meet­ings, I would not be able to,” Cochran replied. He insist­ed, I am the advo­cate of my com­mu­ni­ty,” a line which drew laughs from the gallery.

NS rep­re­sen­ta­tive Her­bert Smith down­played the project’s health risks, telling the com­mis­sion­ers that the ELPC analy­sis report­ed in the Tri­bune had flawed assump­tions in its mod­el­ing method” and was real­ly good theater.”

Com­mis­sion­er Leslie Bond shot back: Just say­ing that their method­ol­o­gy was wrong is not enough for me.”

Bryant’s motion to defer the vote was swift­ly car­ried. The gallery erupt­ed in applause as Chair­man Mar­tin Cabr­era banged a gav­el, call­ing for order.”

From our per­spec­tive, the impos­si­ble hap­pened. We were not sup­posed to suc­ceed at all, not sup­posed to be able to do any­thing,” says Rev. Ellis. The odds are still weighed against us, but, boy, things are happening.”

Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke

Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH