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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Chicago Dumped on by Corruption

Air Date: Week of

Prosecution is pending for some corrupt Chicago politicians who sold out a Chicago neighborhood to illegal garbage dumping. Residents have fallen ill, and an investigation was mounted to find out who was behind the mounds of garbage put there by bribes. Shirley Jahad of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports from Chicago.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. An unfolding investigation in Chicago has revealed that some politicians profited while illegal waste sites piled high in city neighborhoods. Before it's all over, as many as 40 people could be indicted in the undercover probe called Operation Silver Shovel. Shirley Jahad of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports from Chicago.

JAHAD: The view from Keith Wardlow's back porch isn't pretty, but it is awesome. It is simply called The Mountain: 700,000 tons of debris.

(A subway runs in the distance)

K. WARDLOW: Now that's The Mountain. Now you're seeing The Mountain; you see how tall that is? You see how tall that is. How far it is. Now that's The Mountain. Now you imagine, do you imagine how much all that dirt, bricks and all that -- I mean you can't even call it in no mountain. I don't know what to call it.

(The sound of dump trucks)

JAHAD: The illegal dump is piled 60 feet high with mostly concrete and road construction waste. It covers 4 square city blocks and now residents on Chicago's West Side are wondering who will clean it up. The neighborhood is predominantly African American and lower income. Vacant lots mark the spots where factories once stood. Keith Wardlow's house shakes every time trucks roll in and out of the dump site. He always keeps his windows closed and covered with plastic in a vain effort to prevent dust blowing off the heap from settling in his apartment. He says his 4 year old son Keno has contracted severe asthma. The boy's mother, Debra Wardlow, says the child has to breathe through a machine, a nebulizer.

D. WARDLOW: He's on it twice a day and sometimes the machine doesn't work so I have to rush him to the emergency room.

JAHAD: Chicago-style corruption is at the core of this illegal dump and several others around town. Cash for trash, it has been called. A former Chicago alderman, Bill Henry, allegedly sold out his community 5 years ago by taking $5,000 a month in bribes allowing the dumping to start. Mr. Henry was already facing other corruption charges in 1992 on separate issues, and he died before being indicted for the illegal dumping. At least half a dozen current or former aldermen have been named in the probe. One of them, Ambrosio Modrano, has already pleaded guilty and resigned. As many as 40 other lower ranking city officials could be indicted for corruption connected to the illegal dumping.

HENDERSON: It is not simply a case of glorified littering. This is really dumping and assaulting the community.

JAHAD: Henry Henderson is Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Environment.

HENDERSON: It's exacerbated breathing problems, asthma, health threats to the community. It has attracted the dumping of other hazardous wastes and hazardous materials. The material has fallen off the site into the streets. It has choked the sewers, ended up in flooding communities. The activity has caused people to abandon the buildings and leave the immediate periphery, leaving abandoned buildings that are very dangerous and in themselves health threats.

JAHAD: It has been just over a month since the probe was made public, and many of those involved are still pointing fingers. Community residents not only blame local officials for allegedly taking bribes. Some also blame the Feds for apparently standing by, letting the neighborhoods get trashed, while investigators spend years trying to nab a few dirty Aldermen. Keith Wardlow says Federal officials should have just helped clean up the site early on, rather than have an undercover mole offer bribes to city officials while trash continued to mount.

K. WARDLOW: One crook trying to prosecute another crook. (Laughs) To me, you know, if you're so concerned about what they had, why you ain't in the neighborhood trying to see who got infected from the dirt? You know. That's what you should have been doing first, you know, instead of trying to find out who took some money.

JAHAD: Area residents and elected officials say the dumping never would have happened in a toney suburb. Environment Department Commissioner Henry Henderson agrees.

HENDERSON: This happened to this community because this community was seen as vulnerable. And I think that is not unrelated to racial realities of this community. I think this is one of the more easy cases to make of environmental injustice, environmental racism.

JAHAD: While the charges continue to fly, at least a small part of the cleanup has begun.

(Garbage trucks spilling junk)

JAHAD: Lindalh Brothers Construction dumped about 100,000 tons at the site. To avoid prosecution they've reached an out of court settlement with the city to remove their share, about one seventh of the total debris. Rick Bore is an operating engineer for Lindalh Brothers.

BORE: It's been here so damn long and it's so high that it's a problem.

JAHAD: How many trucks do you have coming in and out a day? Truckloads off that mountain?

BORE: About 120.

JAHAD: How long will you be at it?

BORE: Oh, 3, 4, months. It will be a while.

JAHAD: Even after Lindalh Brothers cleans up its share of the mess, though, 600,000 tons of trash will remain. The city is still fighting in the courts to get that and other dump sites cleaned up. Meanwhile, Chicago officials aren't happy that the Federal Environmental Protection Agency has done little to help. EPA officials say their agency will only get involved if hazardous materials are found at the sites, but so far their tests have turned up negative. Many local residents say there's just no way to tell what's under all those tons of trash.

K. WARDLOW: They should'a never put this stuff there.

JAHAD: Yeah.

K. WARDLOW: People get sick. That's probably got all kinds of, it's a health hazard in the first place. Rats. Cats and dogs, you know. It's just a health hazard; you can look at it and tell. Garbage, you know. Probably a couple of bodies up under that stuff.

JAHAD: Bodies may not actually be found, but political casualties are likely to mount in the coming months as more indictments are announced. The probe has already led to one change: a new law, passed by the Chicago City Council, that will slap dumpers with higher fines, loss of city contracts, and possible jail time. For Living on Earth, I'm Shirley Jahad in Chicago.



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