Hazardous Waste Cleanup—DePue, Illinois      

The Environmental Advocacy Center (EAC) represents the Village of DePue, a town of 1,800, largely low-income and diverse residents, located in north central Illinois, which was left contaminated with dangerous heavy metals after decades of industrial operations—including a zinc smelter, fertilizer manufacturing operations, and lithopone paint manufacturing—ended in the 1980’s. DePue was named a Superfund site in 1999 - a designation that means DePue is one of the most contaminated and dangerous places for people and the environment in the United States.

EAC students have worked extensively to develop advocacy strategies to push enforcement agencies and the responsible companies to conduct an appropriate cleanup of the contamination at DePue. Students efforts have included information gathering and analysis, consultation with scientific experts within both the Northwestern University academic community and the outside scientific community and work with experts on preparing reports, preparation of numerous comments and advocacy pieces, and  promotion of media coverage.  With help of the Northwestern Chemistry Department faculty and students and Groundswell Educational Films, the EAC created an interactive website, that enables users to click on specific locations on a map of DePue to determine what contaminants are present and the dangers the contaminants pose. 

Growing out of its work at DePue, the EAC has advocated extensively to state and federal agencies for adoption of a more protective standard for clean up of lead in soils on residential properties and areas where children can be exposed to lead contamination at Superfund and other hazardous waste sites.

Protecting Productive Farm Land from Environmental Degradation

The EAC represents several farmers who live in central Illinois in their effort to protect some of Illinois’s richest farm land from environmental harms.  As fracking, the process of extracting oil from rock deep below the earth’s surface, began its recent boom, a high demand arose for silica sand, a key component of the fracking process.  Silica sand, when mixed with chemicals and water that are injected deep underground, acts as a proppant to keep the cracks in rock open allowing oil and gas to be removed. Central Illinois is rich in farmland and silica sand.  Sand mining destroys the farm land and poses serious health and environmental risks to people living and farming nearby. EAC’s clients have lived and farmed in  LaSalle County, Illinois for several generations, but their livelihoods and health are threatened by a “sand rush” that is converting hundreds of acres of prime farmland into sand mines.  Along with the loss of farm land, the mines deplete groundwater and cause other major environmental disturbances including aerial dispersion of hazardous silica sand, blasting, and hundreds of diesel trucks traveling rural roads.

On behalf of the farmers, EAC filed a lawsuit in Illinois state court challenging approval of one of the sand mines planned in LaSalle County.   Although the complaint was dismissed in July 2015, the EAC filed an appeal, which was argued in June 2016.  EAC students played a large role in the drafting all of the pleadings and briefs both in the lower court and appellate court proceedings and argued motions in the lower court.  The EAC and our clients are awaiting a decision from the appellate court on whether the case will be allowed to go forward. 

The EAC has also employed other advocacy tools to push the local governments in Illinois to undertake more thoughtful planning concerning sand mine development.  With support from the clinic’s long-term Northwestern partner, the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN), the EAC convinced the LaSalle County Board to undertake a groundwater survey being performed by the United States Geological Survey to assess the availability of groundwater in the area where new mines have opened and additional mines are planned.  The EAC expects the survey results to provide important information to LaSalle County and local towns as they consider future mines and also to be a model for other regions considering permitting of mining and other industries that use water intensively.

Energy Efficiency and Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The EAC represents Elevate Energy, an award-winning, Illinois-based non-profit, that promotes energy efficiency for all—with an emphasis on expanding energy efficiency programs in low-income communities Energy efficiency programs significantly reduce energy costs—and help protect the environment—but energy efficiency programs can unintentionally leave out low-income communities from the  cost savings.  For example, rebates for purchases of “Energy Star” appliances require people to purchase expensive new appliances to get the benefit.  Elevate Energy works to ensure that low-income communities can benefit from other types of energy efficiency programs like installation of more efficient windows.

As part of EAC’s work with Elevate Energy, EAC students have conducted research on complex energy issues and prepared a comparative analysis of energy efficiency programs in neighboring states to look for ways to provide greater access to energy efficiency programs in Illinois.  Students presented comprehensive memoranda and delivered oral presentations setting out their analysis and suggesting specific policy proposals.  In a second matter, EAC students are doing research and working on policy proposals related to Illinois’ implementation of energy efficiency programs in the context of the U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which is aimed at reducing harmful emissions of gases that contribute to global warming.

Petroleum Coke Pile Removal from Southeast Chicago

The EAC represents the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke—a coalition of local community residents and non-profit organizations of the Southeast side of Chicago.  Along with partner not-for-profit organizations, the EAC successfully advocated for a Chicago ban on new storage facilities for petroleum coke (“petcoke”) and removal of all existing outdoor petcoke storage piles.

Petcoke is a black, oily dust that is a byproduct of the oil refining process.  When the EAC first got involved in this fight, companies were storing uncovered piles of petcoke as high as 60 feet in southside residential neighborhoods, even directly across the street from peoples’ homes. The most immediate concern about petcoke is the danger to residents’ health.  Particles from petcoke dust’ pass though peoples’ throats and noses and into their lungs, causing acute and chronic respiratory and cardiovascular illness or distress.  The petcoke problem has also caused property damage and impacted residents’ ability to enjoy living in and using the outside of their homes. Petcoke dust has blown onto neighboring properties on a regular basis, ruining picnics and requiring daily cleanup of outside and inside surfaces.   

EAC students, working under the guidance of the EAC lawyers, have advocated tirelessly at all levels of government and employed a variety of strategies to push for action including planning for and participation in meetings with the City of Chicago and drafting comments presented during the Chicago Department of Public Health’s rulemaking concerning petcoke storage in Chicago.  Students also participated alongside community members in press conferences and protests and drafted press releases to support media strategies. 

Currently, only one petcoke facility remains in Southeast Chicago, and it will no longer be permitted to store petcoke outside. The Coalition remains concerned that the facility’s operation as a direct-transfer facility—where petcoke will arrive in rail cars and be transferred through a closed conveyer to open barges—may still lead to the harmful release of petcoke dust.  The EAC continues to represent the Coalition on these concerns.  The fight against petcoke is also part of the larger effort to promote a healthier community for residents of southeast Chicago, who have been overburdened by the harmful, polluting effects of big industry for many decades.  We continue to represent the Coalition in these broader efforts.

Protected Englewood’s Residents from Increased Air Pollution Associated with a Rail Yard Expansion

When Norfolk Southern Railroad revealed plans to expand its rail yard in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, the community group Sustainable Englewood Initiatives turned to the EAC and its partners at the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) for legal assistance.  Englewood, a largely African-American and low-income community, already experiences elevated asthma rates and the rail yard expansion would have exposed the residents to a substantial increase in air pollution from dangerous particulate matter and diesel exhaust.  On behalf of our clients, EAC successfully advocated for the use of updated equipment to reduce emissions of particulate matter.  The EAC’s advocacy also led to land transfer of an abandoned rail line so that the City of Chicago can convert it into green space for the Englewood community.  The EAC continues to engage in efforts to advance the Englewood Remaking America (ERA) Trail.