A Toxic Tour of Little Village

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Editor’s Note: The following story was written by a student in our first-ever Eco Youth Reporters program, conducted in conjunction with award-winning journalist Kari Lydersen, Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, and Imagine Englewood If, a youth services organization based in that South Side neighborhood. The Eco Youth Reporters program is generously funded by the McCormick Foundation:

On July 13, 2011 we went to Little Village for a “Toxic Tour.” There were five teenagers and one grown woman taking us on a tour to show us the Crawford coal plant, the plastics recycling company MRC Polymers, Meyer Steel Drum and a garden at a school, so they could tell us what environmental issues are going on around Little Village.

The organization is the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO). Our tour guides were Brenda Becerra, 18, Maira Galvan, 17, Viviana Galvan, 19, Daniela Jurado, 19, Hannah Weinstein, 20, and Carolina Macias, 18.

At MRC, they take car bumpers and turn them into little balls and change them into iPods, PSPs (play station portables) and other plastic things. They showed us how we can reuse things instead of throwing them in regular garbage cans where they end up smashed up. A number of people living near the MRC plant got cancer, according to the Little Village activists, who suspect chemicals from the plant caused the disease.

The next stop on the tour was Meyer Steel Drum, where toxic chemicals are stored in big drums. The Little Village activists told us that in the past their boss had climbed up a tree to look over the fence and get pictures of what was going on inside the plant. But as she was doing that she fell off the tree inside the factory grounds. Then she took a lot of pictures inside, they said, until a security guard saw her. She took the film and threw it outside the fence because she thought the guard was going to break her camera. She got enough evidence to tell the police what was going on in there, the activists said.

Little Village residents are worried about the plant because they said there are barrels in the field outside and some kids play around there.

The Crawford coal plant at 30th Street and Hamlin Avenue had two tall skinny smokestacks. The coal piled outside looks like little black rocks. The coal plant has been there for more than 60 years. The activists explained that the coal was created over time from dead plants and animals being compressed in the soil. The plant burns the coal in big long tubes to make electricity. The smoke can cause asthma attacks for people like me who have asthma and bronchitis, and it may cause death for older people, according to studies including one by a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. The smoke can also seriously harm young newborn babies because their lungs aren’t developed yet.

During the tour, we heard from the activists about three environmental problems, but at the end of the day we also talked about one good thing and that was the garden at Joseph Gary Elementary School at 31st Street and Lawndale Avenue. The garden, planted by members of LVEJO and students, means people can have more fresh food. The people who work in the garden can take the food home or take it to a market and sell it.

LVEJO also works on other issues along with environmental problems. A man named Mike Pitula at LVEJO is trying to get a bus to run on 31st Street because there hasn’t been a bus on that route for 15 years.

The tour ended where it began, in LVEJO’s office. I know why they call it Little Village – because LVEJO’s office is a little place. It has different types of patterns on the ceiling. It feels kind of small, but a fun place to be.

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