Cheap Seats 2018
SE Side Update - 05/09
By Rich Trzupek
A reader recently wrote to ask me about the latest freak-out press release sent by the National Resources Defense Council fanning the flames of the non-existent “manganese contamination crisis” on the Southeast Side of Chicago. (Where, as veteran readers know, your humble correspondent grew up).
According to an NRDC authored story, “Soil Samples Show Dangerously High Levels of Manganese on (sic) Southeast Side Homes.” (I’ve sicced them in the assumption that the soil is not actually lying atop southeast side homes, but is rather on the ground, as is typically the case in my experience.)
So, my reader wondered, is this a case of “fake news?” The answer is: no. The facts that NRDC quotes are accurate, but the context in which it presents its facts, the facts it chooses not to relate and the choices in subjective language they use are all designed to elicit a reaction somewhere between worry and horror from the non-technically savvy reader.
NRDC’s slant here is consistent with what they do. It’s designed to solicit both donations from concerned citizens and grants from leftist philanthropic organizations.
However, though NRDC clearly has an agenda, motivation does not in itself invalidate a proposition. So, let’s consider the proposition on its own merits.
The essence of NRDC’s message relies on the following facts, which are not in dispute:
- Manganese can have toxic effects on humans.
- Some soil samples in the SE side exhibited manganese concentrations that exceed EPA’s guidelines that dictate when remediation is required.
Based on these two facts, which (at the risk of repeating myself) are not in dispute, NRDC implies that SE side residents are in danger and drastic action is therefore needed. I DO dispute their conclusion.
Before we dig in further, it should be noted that it’s not surprising that some soil samples taken in the SE side would contain elevated levels of manganese. Manganese is an important alloy when making steel, as are chromium, nickel, lead and other compounds that the left and the press routinely refers to as “toxic,” though that term has very little meaning in an unbiased scientific sense. It would be surprising NOT to find these compounds in elevated levels in SE side soil samples considering how much of the steel industry was concentrated there in days of yore and how lax disposal practices were - throughout the industrialized world - until circa 1970.
With that in mind, let’s dig a little deeper into the two uncontested facts that NRDC used to create their ever-so-scary press release conclusions.
1. Manganese is “toxic.” To properly evaluate that claim, we need to understand what “toxic” means. As previously discussed in this here column, toxicity involves three primary factors: a) the compound, b) the dose and c) the way the compound interacts with your body. Compound A can be very toxic at very low dose when inhaled, for example, but benign when it comes to dermal (physical touch) exposure at very high doses. Compound B can be carcinogenic when ingested, but not when inhaled. EPA and OSHA clearly call out all three factors when evaluating the danger that any particular chemical or element may present to the public. No actual scientist working in my field talks about chemicals and elements as if there is a firmly-established line that separates “toxic” chemicals from “safe” chemicals. We talk about exposure and routes of exposure and relative risk.
2. SE side soil samples showed elevated manganese levels. In the case of manganese, we should first consider that manganese is one of many micro-nutrients. You NEED a certain (though small) amount of manganese in your system to be healthy. Too much manganese can indeed cause health risks, BUT of the three primary exposure routes, two are of primary concern (inhalation and indigestion) while the third (dermal) isn’t much of a problem.
EPA sets its standards for how much of particular compounds and elements are acceptable in soil based on the assumption that those compounds and elements will make their way into groundwater that will eventually be ingested by the local populace. In Chicago and the majority of the surrounding suburbs, this is not a concern. We get our water from Lake Michigan and it is very well treated before it hits our tap. Since we don’t use well-water, manganese contamination is irrelevant when considering the ingestion route. Unless one is living in exceptionally arid climates where airborne dust is a problem, the inhalation route doesn’t present a danger either. Since we didn’t care about dermal exposure to begin with, the amount of manganese in the soil that a person might touch is immaterial.
So, while the concentrations of manganese found in some soil samples may exceed EPA standards, those standards were set to protect the populace in a scenario that does not apply here, one in which the public’s drinking water could be impacted.
Sites like this are generically called “brownfield” (as opposed to greenfield) sites. This refers to abandoned sites - typically old industrial sites or gas stations - where concentrations of certain pollutants may exceed EPA standards, but their presence does not constitute any sort of threat to human health and the environment. Chicago is chock full of brownfield sites.
In the past, Illinois law required people to clean up the soil at brownfield sites to EPA standards before performing any construction at the site. After following this policy for many years, the state finally noticed that nobody was redeveloping brownfield sites. They just sat there. Developers stayed away from them like the plague, because the cost of remediation was so high. Following the law of unintended consequences, legislation designed to clean up contaminated sites ensured that those sites would remain contaminated.
At that point, a degree of sanity returned (in both Illinois and other states). People woke up to the fact that the majority of these sites did not present any public danger. So Illinois changed the law, making it much easier to redevelop a brownfield site. So long as you could show that you would not endanger the public by doing so, a developer could proceed to build on a brownfield site without conducting an extensive, expensive and usually pointless clean up.
Not having seen the results of the analysis that NRDC mentions, I cannot tell you with certainty that this site would qualify as a brownfield site that would require no or minimal mitigation if developed. However, I would bet a great deal of money on it. The chances that NRDC will produce more scary stories with flimsy technical foundations on the other hand?
I’m not taking that bet.