At its core, my day job as an environmental consultant to industry is about helping clients safely negotiate the rocks and shoals of an ever-more complex regulatory structure. The Biden administration, along with an increasing number of blue states, are adding yet another level of needless complexity to that structure, making so-called “environmental justice” a priority.
In practice, the idea of "environmental justice" has almost nothing to do with protecting low-income and minority communities from supposed exploitation by dirty, rotten scoundrel polluters, but instead ensures economic injustice by placing roadblocks to development in areas that have a disproportionate number of historically brownfield sites.
As we dive into this issue, it’s important for the reader to understand what a brownfield site is and how it came to be. Brownfield, as opposed to greenfield, sites refer to properties that are often contaminated by pollution from historical activities that occurred prior to the modern era of environmental regulation, which began under the Nixon administration in 1970.
Consider my childhood home as a typical example. I grew up on the far southeast side of Chicago in a neighborhood called “Hegewisch” after its founder Adolph Hegewisch, who had hoped to duplicate the George Pullman ideal of a self-sustaining industrial community via his Rolling Stock Company.
That didn’t happen, neither for Adolph (his name is sometimes given as Achilles, or even Adolfo) nor for Pullman, but what did happen is that the burgeoning steel industry that emerged shortly after the turn of the last century pumped a lot of money and jobs into the southeast side of Chicago and northwest Indiana. Steel mills popped up like mushrooms, creating good-paying, secure jobs. Immigrants flooded in to fulfill the labor demand.
Both my maternal and paternal grandparents immigrated (legally, by the by) from Poland in the 1920s, hoping to cash in on the boom, and settled in Hegewisch. The steel industry on the Southeast Side of Chicago and Northwest Indiana was eventually deemed a vital national resource during the Cold War. Nike missile batteries ringed the area in to protect the mills from Soviet bombers. As kids, we all knew the location of the nearest fallout shelter in case the Soviets tried to take out the mills with nuclear missiles.
The growth of the steel industry from c. 1920 to 1980 on the southeast side of Chicago and northwest Indiana had absolutely nothing to do with taking advantage of an otherwise disadvantaged populace and labor force. It was quite the opposite. Business was booming and everyone was welcome to contribute. My father worked in the mills all his life. I and my three brothers who variously worked in the mills or had jobs supporting the mills benefited as well.
The bottom dropped out of the Chicago-area steel industry starting around 1980. There was no single cause one could point to, but rather a combination of events. These included: the rise of big labor, management’s willful ignorance when it came to recognizing how drastically lower labor rates in the Asian countries could undercut the American steel industry, management’s unwillingness to deploy new, more efficient technologies to offset the labor rate difference, and the new environmental movement’s demands to establish standards that were far more stringent than any standards that had been previously imposed.
American steel mills lost their competitive advantage and many went out of business throughout the latter half of the 20th century. On the southeast side of Chicago and northwest Indiana the carnage wiped out names that had previously been core employers: Republic Steel, Wisconsin Steel, Interlake, U.S. Steel South Works, Youngstown Steel and many others
The timing was significant. Big steel grew in the Midwest corridor during a time when nobody paid much attention to environmental standards. It shrank during a time when environmental standards began to emerge. Thus the area was full of properties that been the home of now shut-down and abandoned steel mills that also contained levels of pollutants in the soil and groundwater that were typical of the pre-environmental regulatory era, but unacceptable in the new era. This problem did not only involve the now-dormant mills, but included the many industries that grew up during boom times to support the mills: coke plants, landfills, railyards, etc.
As the jobs left and the depression-era generation that at one time made up most of Hegewisch’s populace began to die off, the neighborhood changed over time. What had been a middle class mostly Polish neighborhood morphed into a lower class, mostly Hispanic neighborhood. The neighborhood had aged and was surrounded by abandoned brownfields sites. Property values dropped, attracting lower-income families who could not afford homes in more affluent neighborhoods.
An area is designated as an "environmental justice" zone primarily based on two characteristics: income and ethnicity. A poor neighborhood with a large minority population is the ideal EJ zone and Hegewisch, along with some surrounding neighborhoods has been so designated.
Though the EJ designation is supposed to be protective, it’s actually quite damaging. The theory is that dirty rotten polluters would try to take advantage of vulnerable neighborhoods but for the EJ zone protection. The reality is that we live in an era of the most stringent environmental standards in the history of the industrial era. No facility being built in America today has anything near the potential to generate pollution or affect public health the way that the old rust belt plants built in the first part of the 20th century had.
So what an EJ zone does, in effect, is to serve as a red flag to anyone thinking of developing a new job-creating facility in or near such a neighborhood. Building in an EJ zone means jumping through many more regulatory hoops, risking being vilified by ignorant journalists and self-interested environmental NGOs. No one in my business, whose job it is to look out after our client’s best interests, would ever advise some one to develop a new project in an EJ zone.
Before leaving this story, let’s step back into my old neighborhood of Hegewisch. A metal recycling facility operated by General Iron received a permit to build a state-of-the-art plant in one of the old industrial parts of Hegewisch.
There are more than 300 metals-recycling plants, sometimes called “auto shredders,” across the United States. They are by far the most important and most economic form of recycling in the country. According to the Department of Commerce, the industry ranks 16th in terms of revenue nationally. More steel is now recovered through recycling in America than is produced in the blast furnaces at traditional steel mills, and the air pollution generated by recyclers is a tiny of fraction of what traditional integrated steel mills generate on a per ton of steel produced basis.
Add to this that, General Iron (not my client, if you’re wondering) permitted the plant with state of the art pollution controls, equipment most similar plants do not have. And, in addition to the jobs the facility would directly create, it would also create related jobs among the truckers, maintenance contractors and other services necessary to keep the plant going. All good stuff, right?
No. Not according to the mainstream media and environmental NGOs who have made the most outrageous claims about the danger the facility supposedly represents to my old neighborhood. Trusting those frauds and not really understanding the issues, some citizens banded together to form groups whose sole goal is to prevent the multi-million-dollar facility from opening. Some have even gone on hunger strikes.
It’s madness, but it’s the sort of madness that grows out of the noble-sounding, but utterly damaging concept of environmental justice. The next time a client asks me about building in an EJ area, I’ll have to point them no further than the General Iron fiasco to demonstrate how big a mistake that can be.