This article is the first in a #NoMatMondays series highlighting corruption and regulatory failures by the City of Chicago and documenting the environmental violations of Tadin family companies doing work as city contractors.
Last year, the City of Chicago was forced to shut down, delay, or postpone many routine city functions because of Covid-19. That included administrative hearings to process citations issued by the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH). These hearings are typically prosecuted by the Law Department, and the outcomes are recorded in the CDPH Environmental Enforcement data set, which was last updated on March 10th.
According to Chicago’s data portal, 97.5 percent of the citations issued by CDPH last year remain unresolved, with no recorded outcome and no fines. CDPH issued 865 citations in 2020. As of today, 851 are unresolved “active” cases, with no reported outcome and no fines. Of the 23 citations marked “closed,” 10 show a disposition of “nonsuit,” meaning the city decided not to prosecute that violation.
As the pandemic wore on, the city adapted, using virtual court hearings and remote learning. A year later, the City of Chicago is aggressively seeking to return to normal. But even as Mayor Lightfoot has pushed to reopen school buildings and loosened restrictions on indoor dining, the processing of environmental citations remains more than a year behind—at the beginning of March 2021, only 14 citations had been closed, none issued after January 2020. The city has since managed to close 9 additional cases, bringing the current total to 23 (you can monitor their progress and explore the citations at http://bit.ly/cdphEnforcement).
There were some publicly announced fines in response to high-profile incidents, including for Hilco after its botched demolition and General Iron after an explosion. However despite the headlines, it was not fines that were issued but citations. The city data portal suggests that like the rest of the environmental violations ticketed in 2020, they are still waiting to be prosecuted. Of the 16 citations issued to Hilco for their botched demolition, only 4 have been closed—as nonsuits, with no listed fines.
Environmental violations have remained unprosecuted even for businesses CDPH has identified as “industrial sites with community health concerns,” such as MAT Asphalt. MAT, named for its owner Michael A. Tadin, is a hot mix asphalt plant that opened suddenly in 2018 next to schools and homes, directly across the street from McKinley Park. It immediately drew outrage for its lack of public notice, for the foul sulfurous odors that it emits as a by-product of asphalt production, for the dust that blows from piles of debris, and for the steady streams of trucks.
A city inspector visited MAT Asphalt in July 2020. According to the inspection report:
WHILE ON PERSHING RD NEAR DAMEN AVE, STRONG ODORS OF FRESHLY PRODUCED ASPHALT AND ODORS SIMILAR TO FIREWORKS (BURNING CHEMICALS/SULFUR) WERE OBSERVED. THESE ODORS ARE VERY UNCOMFORTABLE TO INHALE AND INSTANTLY MADE ME NAUSEOUS. A CITIZEN THAT WAS WALKING IN THE PARK EXPRESSED HOW HORRIBLE THE ODORS WERE THAT DAY AND HOW DIFFICULT IT WAS FOR HIM TO BREATH. I OBSERVE THE EMISSIONS FROM THE STACK BLOWING TOWARDS THE INTERSECTION OF DAMEN AVE AND PERSHING RD, BLOWING INTO AND OVER THE FACILITIES EAST OF MAT ASPHALT.
The inspector issued four citations: for air pollution, for operating equipment without a permit, for nuisance in connection with a business, and for handling material susceptible to becoming windborne. The inspection record set a hearing date of December 10, 2020. However, no hearing ever took place. Reached by phone, the Department of Administrative Hearings said MAT’s case had been issued a continuance and was scheduled for a hearing later this month.
To recap: responding to complaints, the Chicago Department of Public Health found serious environmental violations at a facility they identified as an “industrial site with community health concerns.” They wrote tickets for those violations. Then, the city postponed any further action for at least eight months during a pandemic. Even now, it is unclear if MAT’s case will be closed, if they will be issued fines, or if the city will simply decide not to prosecute them.
In the meantime, a growing body of research has found that air pollution leads to more frequent and more serious cases of Covid-19, both from long-term cumulative impacts and recent increases in pollution. Not surprisingly, this is reflected in the death rates: neighborhoods identified by CDPH as having the worst air quality also have the highest death rate from Covid-19.
There is a deep irony in the city’s decision to suspend environmental enforcement on the grounds of “health and safety.” Many public spaces have been closed and restricted to avoid making the pandemic worse, but privately owned polluters have been allowed to operate with impunity, even as they directly contribute to a higher Covid death toll in their neighborhoods.
It is clear that the City of Chicago cares less about prosecuting environmental violations than about reopening restaurants. Neighbors For Environmental Justice invites all concerned residents to get involved and join us in demanding change, documenting these offenses against our health, and in taking care of each other when the city has failed us.