in Chicago's Pilsen
neighborhood complained for
years about metallic-tasting smoke rolling down their narrow streets
but had little evidence it was harmful.
Now they have proof. New monitoring
the Tribune reveal that high levels of toxic lead frequently lingered
in the air last year outside an elementary school in the predominantly
Latino enclave that is attended by nearly 500 children.
Average lead levels at Perez Elementary School were at or above federal
limits during three three-month periods in 2010, the data show. Lead
pollution exceeded health standards during a fifth of the days
monitored and, on one day in December, spiked more than 10 times higher
— findings that alarm even veteran investigators.
None of the 14 other lead monitors placed near factories, steel mills
and highways in northeastern Illinois
recorded as many high
readings as the one that state officials put on the roof of Perez a
year ago, responding to Tribune reporting about air pollution in
Pilsen. The only other part of Illinois where a chronic lead problem
was detected is a neighborhood surrounding a steel mill in Granite
City, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.
With a full year of results in hand, the high airborne lead levels
found at Perez are prompting a joint
the U.S. and Illinois Environmental Protection agencies. Officials put
another monitor on the roof of nearby Juarez Community Academy two
weeks ago in an attempt to pinpoint the culprits.
While officials aren't sure yet where the lead is coming from, both
Pilsen schools are within a few blocks of two of the biggest industrial
sources of the toxic metal in the Chicago area: the H. Kramer and Co.
smelter and the Fisk coal-fired power plant. Perez is north of the two
polluters; Juarez is west.
"We're trying to move quickly because children are involved," said
Laurel Kroack, chief of the IllinoisEPA
air bureau. "But we need better data to figure out the story before
More stringent limits on airborne lead emissions are part of a
decades-long campaign to protect kids from lead poisoning. A growing
number of studies show that even tiny amounts of the metal ingested or
inhaled can damage the brains of young children and trigger learning
disabilities, aggression and criminal behavior later in life. Most
scientists say there is no safe level of exposure.
Efforts to prevent lead poisoning are focused largely on safe removal
of old lead-based paint, though limits on industrial polluters and the
elimination of leaded gasoline already have led to declining levels in
Pilsen is drawing attention from federal and state officials in
response to "environmental justice" complaints that the minority,
low-income neighborhood is disproportionately affected by air pollution.
"Lead pollution is another big problem for us," said Jerry Mead-Lucero,
a community activist who lives in Pilsen. "The only way we're going to
get answers is to keep the pressure on the EPA to find out where it's
coming from and go after them."
As part of their investigation, EPA officials gathered annual reports
from H. Kramer, Fisk and the four other polluters that reported lead
emissions in a 20-square-mile area bordered by the Eisenhower and Dan
Ryan expressways, Pershing Road and Cicero Avenue.
Three of them each emitted 4 pounds or less of lead in 2009, the last
year for which figures are available, according to records obtained by
the Tribune under the Freedom of Information Act. By contrast, H.
Kramer and Fisk released 242 and 149 pounds into the air, respectively.
Another polluter, the Crawford coal-fired power plant at Pulaski Road
and the Stevenson Expressway, emitted 210 pounds of lead. It is nearly
four miles from the monitors at Perez, 1241 W. 19th St., and Juarez,
1450 W. Cermak Road.
EPA scientists are collecting more frequent samples from the monitors,
tracking weather conditions during days when spikes of pollution are
measured and chemically matching lead particles sucked into the testing
devices with emissions from nearby polluters.
Officials have not widely shared the monitoring results in Pilsen,
where brick three-flats that survived theGreat
Chicago Fire of 1871
crammed cheek by jowl next to factories. Speaking in Spanish, a woman
who lives less than a block from Perez said she is concerned about how
the frequent spikes of lead pollution could affect children.
"We have to make sure they are breathing clean air, right?" said Reyna
Rebollar, whose 9-year-old grandson is a third-grader at the school.
"This is bad. It's blood poison."
Spokesmen for H. Kramer and Fisk denied their facilities are
responsible for the high levels of pollution.
The smelter, once the largest industrial source of airborne lead in Cook
collar counties, has significantly reduced its emissions in response to
pressure from community leaders and environmental regulators.
"We have no idea why they would place a lead monitor so close to us,"
said Todd Wiener, an attorney for H. Kramer. "We are not a major source
Charles Parnell, a spokesman for Midwest Generation, the company that
owns the Fisk plant, said its emissions account for only a small
fraction of lead pollution in the Chicago area.
He speculated that the lead found in Pilsen could be coming from
construction equipment or is being kicked into the air as nearby
buildings are demolished. (Lead-based paint was banned in the late
1970s but remains a festering problem in Chicago and other older
"Furthermore, lead may have accumulated in soil for decades and could
possibly be spread by high winds on a particular day," Parnell wrote in
an email response to questions.
EPA officials also suspected that lead-contaminated soil in the
neighborhood could be part of the problem. They ruled that out after
realizing the highest amount recorded by the Perez lead monitor came
Dec. 10, when there was more than 2 inches of wet snow on the ground.
Illinois expanded its statewide network of lead monitors to Perez and
five other locations after a 2008 Tribune story revealed how President
George W. Bush
's administration had exempted dozens of polluters
Faced with a court order, the U.S. EPA that year lowered the maximum
amount of lead allowed in the air to 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter, a
standard that is 10 times more stringent than the former limit.
Violations are determined by three-month rolling averages.
To enforce the rule, federal officials had planned to require lead
monitors near polluters emitting at least a half-ton of the metal a
year. But in response to industry lobbying, the Bush White
threshold at a ton of lead or more, slashing the number of factories
monitored nationwide by 60 percent.
Some states decided to follow the EPA's original advice. In Illinois,
that meant putting a new monitor in Pilsen, where H. Kramer churned out
as much as 1,450 pounds of lead (or 0.725 tons) as recently as 2007.
Federal, state and city officials had brushed aside complaints until
residents, organized into a group called the Pilsen Environmental
Rights and Reform Organization, collected soil samples around the
smelter in 2005. The group's testing prompted an Illinois EPA study
that confirmed high lead levels in nearby yards, in some cases up to
seven times higher than federal safety limits.
H. Kramer denied it was responsible but later agreed to clean up its
property, scour two nearby sites and spend $500,000 on more effective
Federal and state officials now question whether the efforts were
effective enough to meet tougher health standards. After inspectors in
late February discovered smoke hovering inside the smelter building,
the U.S. EPAcited
H. Kramer for violating the
federal Clean Air Act.
"They worked on closing up the windows and the roof, where a lot of the
lead was leaking out before," said the Illinois EPA's Kroack. "But they
could still have a problem."
Wiener, the H. Kramer attorney, said the company has requested more
information from regulators. "It's our goal to cooperate with them," he
Fisk and Crawford are two aging coal-fired power plants that ComEd sold
to Midwest Generation in 1999. Activists have fought for years to force
the owners to clean up the plants or shut them down, something Midwest
Generation has agreed to do by 2018, but local activists want to happen
New anti-pollution rules unveiled last month by the Obama
administration will force the power company and other utilities to
dramatically reduce emissions of lead and other toxic metals. Midwest
Generation also faces a federal lawsuit and a proposed Chicago
would impose tougher pollution limits.
Tribune reporter Becky