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Polluting Industries Inflict Unfair Burdens on Waukegan’s Most Vulnerable Residents
Social Justice and Environmental Justice Go Hand in Hand in Building Healthier Communities, Say Activists
WAUKEGAN, ILL. (June 22, 2019)—Activists representing Waukegan’s immigrant, low-income, and working-class families came together today in a downtown rally, united in the hope that achieving social and environmental justice will help them build a healthier, more sustainable community.
Their hopes have taken on a new sense of urgency in light of the Lake County Public Health Department’s release on Friday of preliminary results of ambient air monitoring for ethylene oxide (EtO) near Medline Industries in Waukegan and Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee.
Waukeganites’ battle against EtO is the latest chapter in Waukegan’s painful history of industrial pollution. It is an equally painful example of environmental injustice.
When EtO was identified as a concern in Willowbrook (Sterigenics)—77 percent white, with an average per capita income of more than $71,000 a year—US EPA officials met with residents almost immediately. They began monitoring air 3 months later and sealed the plant 3 months after that.
In Waukegan (Medline Industries)—where the neighborhoods most affected are only 25 percent white and have a per capita income of about $14,000—residents learned about the dangerous chemical in their air from a newspaper article 6 months after Willowbrook residents were briefed about it. Residents are still waiting for the US EPA and the Illinois EPA to act. The only action they’ve seen has come from the Lake County Health Department, the City of Waukegan and the Village of Gurnee.
“Championed primarily by African-Americans, Latinxs, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans, the environmental justice movement addresses a statistical fact: people who live, work and play in the U.S.’s most polluted environments are commonly people of color, immigrants, and living in impoverished conditions,” said Edgar Sandoval, a PhD candidate at the University of Washington, specializing in the geographies of sexuality and racial inequities, migration, citizenship, and social movements. Sandoval grew up in Waukegan and returned recently to work on a fellowship program.
“With Waukegan’s history of pollution—asbestos, superfund sites, the lakefront— and of structural inequities—housing discrimination, uneven infrastructural support, policing—these various exposures highlight how any level of ethylene oxide emissions in the region will only exacerbate the disproportionate negative impacts of environmental injustice on the most vulnerable in our city,” Sandoval said.
“We are honored to be in partnership with Clean Power Lake County,” said Celeste Flores, Lake County Outreach Director for Faith in Place. “It is critically important for people of faith to stand against the unfair burdens that polluting industries inflict on Lake County’s most vulnerable residents. We will continue to uplift the work being done by CPLC, a grassroots organization that is led by frontline community members. We look forward to showing up in whatever way is asked of our organization.”
Speakers detailed the disproportionate air and water pollution risks affecting residents in Waukegan and surrounding communities.
Speakers also suggested things individuals can do to help combat these risks.
“One thing you can do today is call on the governor to seal the EtO operations at Medline. We need to have everyone call and leave messages and turn around tell someone else and tell them to tell someone else, etc., etc.,” said Diana Burdette of Clean Power Lake County. She has been engaged in the EtO battle since shortly after the Chicago Tribune broke the story.
Joining Sandoval and Burdette at the podium were Andrew Rehn, a water resources engineer with Prairie Rivers Network; Guadalupe Bueno and Daniela Lopez, recent graduates of Waukegan High School and Clean Power Lake County volunteers; Austin Cantu, a senior at Waukegan High School who also serves on the board of Waukegan Public School District 60; and Celeste Flores, Lake County Outreach Director for Faith in Place and co-leader of Clean Power Lake County.
The rally was co-hosted by Clean Power Lake County and Faith in Place.
About Clean Power Lake County and Faith in Place
Clean Power Lake County is a community-driven coalition committed to local action to secure environmental, economic, and racial justice.
Faith in Place empowers Illinois people of all faiths to be leaders in caring for the Earth, providing resources to educate, connect, and advocate for healthier communities.