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Group’s dogged environmental work aims to clean up Pilsen

EPA testing site Pilsen neighborhood 957 W. Cullertformer smelting plant thsix years ago was found be contaminated with lead Tuesday

EPA testing site in Pilsen neighborhood at 957 W. Cullerton, former smelting plant that six years ago was found to be contaminated with lead, Tuesday, November 27, 2012. l John H. White ~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 17, 2013 6:42AM

The closer Maria Chavez got to her mom’s Pilsen home, the thicker the smog got.

But when she looked back past her kids in her minivan’s rearview mirror, there was “nothing,” only blue skies, she remembers.

“I kept wondering, ‘what?’ It doesn’t make sense.”

A nearby metal smelter had been belching out toxins into the neighborhood for years — Pilsen’s air quality was so bad that it would set off fire alarms.

But Chavez, who grew up in the neighborhood, never put two and two together until then.

That realization, more than a decade ago, set in motion a chain of events that led Chavez and her neighbors to form a group dedicated to cleaning up Pilsen’s filthy air and contaminated land.

Today, the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (P.E.R.R.O, which means dog in Spanish), is a force to be reckoned with.

Ald. Danny Solis (25th) — who once ignored their calls — is on their side. The Environmental Protection Agency is trying to fix Pilsen’s pollution problems and residents know they have a powerful voice speaking on their behalf.

“When we started this work, these issues of pollution in the neighborhood were just not well known,” said Jerry Mead-Lucero, a co-founder of the group. “In the ten years we’ve been working on the stuff, there’s much more awareness.”

The group, which has 10 core members, meets once a week at the home of Leila Mendez — one of many residents who attributes her family’s health problems to polluters including smelter H. Kramer and Co. and the coal-fired power plants, Fisk and Crawford.

Since their formation in 2004, the group of volunteers has turned the alderman into an ally, proved that some industry in the neighborhood was poisoning the air and educated the community.

Solis — initially an antagonist of the activists — eventually came on board after they helped force him into a runoff election in 2011 by highlighting his environmental record. The alderman then switched his stance and started working with them.

“They’ve convinced me in general of why it would be better to sort of see the vision they have not only for the neighborhood or ward, but for the city,” Solis said of the group, with which he admits he once had “tension.”

Last month, P.E.R.R.O called attention to a contaminated site near Walsh Elementary School. The U.S. EPA, which had not taken action on previous recommendations from the state, took soil samples from the Loewenthal Metals Corp. site and is awaiting the results.

Chavez, a stay-at-home mom who now lives in Bridgeport, and others from the group, put up caution tape bought at Home Depot and lined the perimeter of the lead-infested site with handmade signs warning residents to stay off the weedy lot.

The group also helped get an EPA air monitor installed at Perez Elementary School. It proved elevated levels of lead, attributed to the H. Kramer plant, and the Illinois Attorney General’s office sued the company, which agreed to reduce emissions.

The group meets with the state’s EPA regularly. “They bring things to our attention. We cannot monitor every facility 24 hours a day seven days a week,” said Ken Page, Illinois EPA Environmental Justice Officer.

People who work with P.E.R.R.O point to the group’s tenacity.

“It’s a very big inspirational story. They could have been another one of these organizations that pops up … (then) just fizzles out after a couple of months. They stuck it out,” said Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health at Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago.

For all that they’ve done, the group knows they have a lot of work to do. Mead-Lucero, the first paid staffer of the group thanks to a Sierra Club grant, points to the sites of the coal-powered plants — both of which are shuttered. The group is helping decide what will happen at those sites.

And he knows Pilsen isn’t the only community that needs this kind of work.

“I think there’s a reason why the North Side of Chicago is a lot cleaner generally and has less pollution problems,” he said. “There’s a lot of neighborhoods that probably also need this attention.”

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