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Englewood residents demand council slow sale of lots to railroad

Updated: February 27, 2013 5:14PM

Englewood residents and their environmental champions are demanding that the Chicago City Council slow down the sale of 105 city-owned lots to Norfolk Southern Railroad to strengthen their demand for pollution controls to mitigate the impact of a massive expansion of the railroad’s inter-modal yard.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to sell the lots to Norfolk Southern for $1.1 million to pave the way for a $285 million expansion that would strengthen Chicago’s position as a rail and freight hub.

The project would expand by 57 percent and 84 acres an existing rail yard bounded by 47th, Wallace, Garfield and Stewart where rail containers are transferred to and from trucks.

The problem is, it would also increase air pollution in an impoverished neighborhood hard hit by asthma and lead poisoning.

On Thursday, Englewood residents and environmental activists have scheduled a City Hall news conference to demand that aldermen slow down the land sale that threatens to undermine their bargaining position with the railroad.

They’re demanding a series of concessions — from “diesel particulate filters” installed on trucks, locomotives, freight-handling and construction equipment to traffic management to minimize truck idling on surrounding roadways.

The residents are further demanding: that indoor air filters be installed at schools, day care centers and other high occupancy neighborhood buildings; that area children be tested for lead contamination; that air quality be monitored and that “buffers” in the form of walls, trees or green space be installed to mitigate the negative impact.

Faith Bugel, a senior attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, warned Wednesday that, if the City Council’s Committee on Housing and Real Estate approves the land sale next week, Englewood residents will lose their leverage.

“If they don’t slow it down, the community will have to live with this industry without ever having a say and the community will have to bear an increase in air pollution. This is a community that already has an unbelievably-high asthma rate,” Bugel said.

“If a railroad was proposing to come into Lincoln Park and create an 84-acre yard, there would be a pretty big and visible outcry. We’re asking the city to use the tools at its disposal to see that the community has a voice in this expansion.”

Housing and Real Estate Committee Chairman Ray Suarez (31st) said he has no intention of postponing next week’s hearing on the land sale.

“I’ve got to hear it. The department [of Housing and Economic Development] is recommending it. It’s coming from the department upstairs. Aldermen of both of those wards support it. The department presented it. I can’t stop it. I can’t slow it down,” Suarez said Wednesday.

Norfolk Southern spokesman Robin Chapman said the railroad is scheduled to meet with Englewood residents in mid-March.

“We are certainly sensitive to environmental concerns. We will want to do the right thing. [But], what the right thing is — what needs to be done and what we’re prepared to do — will be determined after we have this discussion with them,” he said.

Despite the environmental controversy, Chapman portrayed the expansion project as critical for both Norfolk Southern and Chicago.

“We need to improve the efficiency of our inter-modal operation in Chicago. By increasing the efficiency of our operations, there would be a faster through-point for traffic and less congestion in the rail system around Chicago,” Chapman said.

In an email to the Sun-Times, Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner of the Department of Housing and Economic Development, insisted that there is “no direct connection” between the environmental demands of Englewood residents and the “pending sale of 105 city lots.”

“Norfolk Southern will be meeting with neighborhood representatives to specifically address the environmental aspects of this important economic development project, including increasingly stringent EPA regulatory measures involving current and future emissions standards. The meeting should address any perceived environmental issues,” he wrote.

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