McKinley Park residents fighting for clean air try to block controversial asphalt plant on Chicago’s Southwest Side


Mackenzie Murtaugh | The DePaulia

Outside the MAT Asphalt Factory on Pershing Road on the Southwest Side. The factory, which releases fumes when in operation, is adjacent to McKinley Park and near a K-12 charter school.

Robert Beedle moved to McKinley Park in 2015, looking to settle down with his wife in a family-friendly, tight-knit community on Chicago’s Southwest Side. 

The neighborhood seemed like a perfect fit until an aroma he described as mimicking gasoline mixed with burnt pavement started filling the air, preventing Beedle from opening his windows on many warm summer nights. It was as if the MAT Asphalt plant was built overnight, marking the start of just one of many ongoing environmental battles.

MAT Asphalt’s plant, located at 2055 W. Pershing Road, was opened in the heart of the McKinley Park neighborhood in April, 2018.  The plant, which primarily produces road paving material, faces McKinley Park, and is next door to the National Latino Education Institute and a few blocks from Horizon Science Academy: McKinley Park, a K-12 Charter school.  

Other McKinley Park residents cite similar scenarios.  

“The fumes emitting from the asphalt have been extraordinarily strong today. It was difficult for me to walk from my car to inside our building without being physically affected by those fumes,” said an email from an employee of the National Latino Education Institute to the City of Chicago in 2019. 

The email then said the maintenance team had to turn off their air conditioning system because the fumes were so strong.  

The plant seemed to appear overnight,  built without IEPA notification to the surrounding community, according to residents and activists. MAT Asphalt operates up to six days a week roughly from mid-April to mid-December. 

MAT Asphalt was owned by a partnership that includes Buildsmore LLC, owned by Tony Sanchez, Mckinley Park LLC, owned by Charles and Dan Gallagher and MAT Asphalt LLC, owned by Michael Tadin Jr.

Tadin is the son of Michael Tadin Sr., longtime friend of former Mayor Richard M. Daley and owner of both equipment firm MAT Leasing and the Marina Cartage trucking empire. 

Marina Cartage and MAT Leasing have done at least $100 million in business with the city of Chicago, according to Crain Chicago Business. Tadin’s firms benefited from the scandal with the city’s hired truck program that was shut down in 2005 by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley after a Sun-Times investigation found that the $40-million-a-year hired truckers did little or no work. 

McKinley Park’s population is primarily Hispanic, according to U.S. census data. More than 20 percent of residents are living below the poverty line. 

 This area, among many other Southwest Side Chicago neighborhoods such as Little Village, Pilsen and Brighton Park, is embedded in the South Branch industrial corridor, which has been the hub of industries such as coal plants, manufacturing plants and other industrial facilities for decades. 

This area is zoned in Chicago’s Central Manufacturing District, making it the prime location for the opening of these plants. 

Beedle, now the president of the organization Neighbors For Environmental Justice (N4EJ), got involved after learning about the disproportionate effects of industry on marginalized communities, and after realizing the impact that MAT asphalt had on his own.  

Beedle said he is disappointed with the city and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) for not upholding its policy of a 90-day notice period granted to environmental justice communities, which are localities that potentially experience disproportionate harm or risks from environmental hazards. The 90-day period is supposed to allow residents of these communities to comment, question and get involved with developments taking place in their neighborhoods.

“This plant did not go through the community, and they’re going to have a disproportionate effect on our minority community,” Beedle said. “They represent discrimination and the city’s prioritization of industry over the right to quality of life.”

Following the plant’s first year of operation, the IEPA denied MAT Asphalt’s application for a five-year operating permit back in February of 2019, after finding the plant had the potential to emit 10 times more than the allowed amount of toxic particulate matter into the air.

More recently, MAT Asphalt claimed that it had miscalculated numbers within its first application that Illinois officials denied in early 2019 and reapplied for a 10-year operating permit, with research to show that the plant’s emissions are now within the legal limits set by the IEPA. General manager Joe Haughey said in an email that they were initially calculating an end loader bucket as being one ton when it has a 14-ton capacity. 

“From that initial miscalculation, there was an incorrect computation of particulate matter levels,” he said. “The error in the size of the end loader bucket was corrected in a revision to fugitive emission calculations submitted to the Illinois EPA on or around June 27, 2019.”

With MAT Asphalt reapplying for the permit, the ongoing dispute among neighborhood activists, the IEPA and MAT Asphalt over pollution emissions and permit applications culminates with a state permit hearing set for March 23. The public permit hearing will allow all parties, including community members, to review the drafted permit and discuss concerns. 

MAT Asphalt has submitted an application for a federally enforceable state operating permit (FESOP) to the Illinois EPA. The Agency has reviewed the application and prepared a draft FESOP.  The Illinois EPA is accepting public comments on the draft FESOP until 4/22/2020,” said the IEPA in an emailed statement.

MAT Asphalt claims that their facility is not a threat to the community. 

“Our emissions are less than one-fourth the allowable level, according to the IEPA draft permit issued in late 2019,” Tadin said in a statement. “The air quality is well within legal limits across the board: less than one-fifth the allowable level for carbon monoxide, less than one-sixth for particulate matter, and less than one-fifth for volatile organic matter.”

For Beedle, the company’s assurance that its emissions are under the legal limits isn’t enough. 

“We have no way of knowing the degree of accuracy of the tests; they’re conducted by a third party hired by MAT Asphalt,” he said. “I think this self reporting and self regulation is really problematic when you’re talking about the stakes here, which is a facility located across the street from a park and within 1000 feet of people’s homes.”

MAT Asphalt denies the charge of self-regulation, saying there was an IEPA staff member present for the eight-hour emissions calculation performed by a MAT consultant. 

“There has been no self-regulation and there is no dispute,” Haughey said.

Additionally, Beedle feels the data emissions, dated for 2018, are insufficient considering the plant opened July of that year, less than a years worth of data. 

Neighbors for Environmental Justice is currently reviewing the draft permit and associated documents and is preparing to share information with the community in preparation for the hearing. This will include a pre-hearing meeting and a written comment session to work with residents on making impactful written comments on the permit.

The public hearing will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the Horizon Science Academy: McKinley Park, 2245 W. Pershing Road in Chicago.

MAT Asphalt Spokesperson Matt Baron said the company is more than willing to address community member concerns, citing its open houses, attendance at meetings and the 1,000 turkeys they donated to residents for Thanksgiving in an attempt to show their community support.

Tadin said the company has invested “millions of dollars” to make sure the facility has no environmental burdens on the community. He pointed to other industrial plants around Chicago, questioning why he has not witnessed as much community backlash regarding their emissions and permits.

“I’ve had 50 tours. We’ve had open houses. We have turkey giveaways… If you come here, there is no issue,” Tadin said. “…I’ve tried to have conversations with the neighborhood groups and they just don’t specifically want me.”

Despite these claims, residents of McKinley Park still fear MAT Asphalts’ operations, and are passionate about contesting their potential permit, which would allow the plant to operate for ten years. 

Many concerns are related to odors emitted from the plant. These odors, Tadin said, do not pose a danger to community members or employees, but many community members have found it affects their day-to-day life.

 come from students at nearby schools complained of odors during recess and various residents cited a chemical smell, according to emails sent to the City of Chicago.

“This plant did not go through the community, and they’re going to have a disproportionate effect on our minority community,” Beedle said. “They represent discrimination and the city’s prioritization of industry over the right to quality of life.”

— Robert Beedle

Residents are also concerned with the trucks throughout the neighborhood that could result in unaccounted for pollution, which MAT Asphalt estimates make about 50 round trips each day when the plant is in service.  

“We think that just based on the first two years of their operation there’s no way the IEPA should be blindly plowing forward with these plans,” Beedle said. “We are hopeful that at the public hearing we are going to be able to unite the community and give the IEPA compelling evidence as to why they really need to think very carefully about this and make a better decision than they’re inclined to.”

At a meeting on January 16, residents gathered over 3,000 signatures on a petition for the IEPA to deny the permit, according to South Side Weekly.

Southwest Environmental Alliance (SEA) hosted a public meeting on Feb. 3 at St. Paul’s Catholic Church. This environmental justice organization focuses on protecting residents from industrial pollution stemming from dirty industries located in the industrial corridor on the Southwest Side of Chicago.

At the meeting, Chicago’s 25th Ward Alderman Bryon Sigcho-Lopez was present and was in favor of blocking the permits for MAT Asphalt.

“This is not acceptable on the Southwest Side or anywhere in the community. We want to make sure that this industrial corridor becomes a green corridor,” Sigcho-Lopez said. He was elected in May of 2019, succeeding former 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis. “There are different layers to this on how we are going to get handle of the permits and it is a critical part of the aspect.”

Theresa McNamara, one of the founders of SEA, outlined her strategy preparing for the hearing.

“I never think about cleaning up the industrial corridor,” McNamara said. “I think about how I create an organizing effort that is so powerful that everyone will be terrified of them. I look at the industrial corridor as a way to build leaders.”  

This community backlash is not new to Chicago, considering the South and West Sides’ history with industrial pollution.

South and West Side neighborhoods are among the most affected by industry pollution. This is directly correlated to the industrial corridors that have surrounded these communities for years. 

A recent national study from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that facilities emitting particulate air pollution disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color. 

The same study found that communities living below the poverty line have a 35 percent higher burden from particulate matter emissions than the overall population. Non-whites had a 28 percent higher health burden and African Americans had a 54 percent higher burden than the rest of the population. 

According to the EPA, this air pollution can be linked to asthma, irregular heartbeats, decreased lung function, increased respiratory issues and even premature death. Tadin emphasized in a statement that he has “invested in the most sophisticated pollution-control systems available. It’s important to understand the difference between a newly constructed facility, such as MAT Asphalt, and facilities from a generation or two ago.”

Beedle and N4EJ are continuing to fight for their community’s demands for pollutant-free air. Beedle hopes to one day freely open his windows on hot summer nights without the fear of toxicity. 

“No one wants to live near a scrap yard, or an asphalt plant, or a coal plant,” Beedle said, “But we have been taking our fair share of the burden, so when will someone else take it?”