Industrial Strength: Chicago’s worst polluter moves south to Burnside

photo courtesy of flickr user Megulon Five
Today the sight of workers pouring molten steel into molds, sending forth bursts of orange sparks and flames, seems industrial to the point of anachronism. Chicago’s once-famous steel industry has gone the way of much American manufacturing of late; almost all of its steel mills have closed or left the city. A. Finkl & Sons Co. is one of the few that remain. It continues to process over 100,000 tons of steel each year at its Lincoln Park location, cutting a striking sight for passersby and maintaining an active presence in the community. Finkl donates to many environmental and educational causes and has hosted events as momentous as Rod Blagojevich’s gubernatorial election victory parties. It has also contributed greatly to the area’s status as one of the five most polluted zip codes in the city. Now, though, the company is leaving its home of more than 100 years, moving to a more spacious location in the South Side neighborhood of Burnside.

Like much of America’s Rust Belt, Burnside is a neighborhood that has seen better days. From the early ‘70s until 2000, the small, predominantly African-American neighborhood on the far South Side was home to a number of manufacturing industries, including a detergent factory and Jay’s Potato Chips plant. But in recent times Burnside residents have seen these companies close or move away, taking the middle-class jobs that once defined their community with them. “The area has been in an economic slump since 2001, and it has not been able to recover,” says Jean Walker, president of the Burnside Neighborhood Association. “When the factories shut down, a lot of people didn’t have the skills to move on to other jobs. They had to return to school or remain unemployed altogether…We still have a lot of displaced workers.” At about $40,000, Burnside’s median household income is about half that of Lincoln Park’s.

In light of the neighborhood’s depressed economic situation, it is no surprise that A. Finkl & Sons met a warm reception when it announced it would relocate to Burnside after considering several other sites outside Chicago. On her website, Eighth Ward Alderman Michelle Harris touts the company’s planned move as a sign of economic growth. She has sponsored a tour of its current location at 2011 N. Southport Avenue, attended by members of the community group Concerned Citizens for Burnside. A. Finkl & Sons has also been holding public meetings in order to discuss its plans with residents. According to Jean Walker, attitudes about the move are mostly positive. “I think it’s beneficial for the community,” she says. “The majority of people do think it’s a good thing. Just being able to see the change take place in the community, where people can get up and go to work–I think that’s basically their concern.”

A. Finkl & Sons is the worst polluter in Chicago, accounting for nearly one third of the city’s total health risk from factory emissions, according to an analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data by the Chicago Tribune. In 2006, the company reached a settlement with the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice after it allegedly violated performance, equipment, and record-keeping requirements of the Clean Air Act. Nonetheless, the company presents itself as a paragon of environmental responsibility, supporting a variety of city beautification projects and green initiatives, including a successful campaign to plant six million trees in Illinois and Wisconsin.

“I was under the impression that they had an immaculate reputation,” says Walker of the company’s environmental standards. Of its worst-polluter status and EPA violations, she states, “I’ve never heard that, in spite of the fact that I’ve been following this since day one.” While she admits that these things do present a concern, Walker points out that Burnside had a steel plant before: the Verson Steel Company on 93rd Street, the same spot where A. Finkl & Sons plans to move. “We really didn’t have any problems with air pollution,” she maintains. Moreover, she emphasizes, “Companies like A. Finkl & Sons are the primary source of income for this neighborhood. If they can promise a job for someone, people are comfortable with it. I don’t think they’ll fight against it in any kind of way–they want to see that happen.”

photo courtesy of flickr user Megulon Five

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