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EPA cites Southeast Side company for air pollution

Five protesters were arrested after blockading a petcoke storage facility on Chicago's Southeast Side, where heavy industry operates amid residential neighborhoods and residents have complained about air pollution. The Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke is now concerned with excessive manganese emissions.

Industrial materials handler S.H. Bell Co. was cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency excessive manganese emissions from its terminal just across the state line on Chicago's Southeast Side.

The EPA found the facility at 10218 South Ave. "O" on the east bank of the Calumet River, which handles various bulk materials, released an average of 0.32 micrograms per cubic meter of manganese into the air over the last four months, which is higher than the minimal risk level for chronic installation exposure. The naturally occurring element manganese, which is used to make steel and in other industrial processes at factories, can be toxic and cause neurological and neuropsychological damage for people who are exposed to excessive amounts. 

“EPA is committed to protecting public health in southeast Chicago by ensuring S.H. Bell complies with the Clean Air Act,” said Patrick Traylor, deputy assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “EPA required the company to do additional monitoring which revealed the exceedance.”

The Pittsburgh-based company, which has a second Chicago facility on Lake Calumet on the South Side, said it was just one of at least 27 companies in the area that handles manganese.

"Regarding our June data, hotter weather generates dust from all types of sources and we expected that we might see the highest monitor readings during the summer, including readings of metals that are not in any of S.H. Bell’s materials," spokeswoman Alyssa Pistininzi said in a statement. "While we are still seeing the impact of offsite sources on monitor readings, we are examining our operations to identify other potential causes. To get a full picture, we need to analyze the data that will be available once our state-of-the-art large dust collectors become operational this month."

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Pistininzi said the company welcomed a broader study.

"It is also important to note that the minimal risk level is not intended to be an 'allowable level' or compliance or action level," she said." It also doesn’t mean there is a health threat."

Southeast Side residents have grown increasingly concerned with air pollution that's resulted from the bulk storage of materials like petcoke on the Calumet River. They successfully lobbied for a crackdown on petcoke handlers after dusty clouds of the petroleum byproduct blew through their neighborhood in 2014.

“This is another example of bulk storage facilities in Chicago endangering their neighbors. Manganese is handled in many locations across the region — the data points to a problem in this facility and it needs to be addressed now. But we also need to ensure others are not exposed to this toxic dust in other neighborhoods too," the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, the Southeast Environmental Task Force, Moms Clean Air Force, Natural Resources Defense Council and National Nurses United said in a joint statement.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.