High manganese levels lead EPA to crack down on Southeast Side polluter

Source:, August 8, 2017
By: Michael Hawthorne

Federal environmental regulators are cracking down on a Southeast Side company after finding high levels of brain-damaging manganese in a low-income, predominantly Latino neighborhood.
Air quality monitors posted around the S.H. Bell Co. storage terminal recorded violations of federal health standards during nearly 40 percent of the days when samples were collected between March and June, according to data posted online Monday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Average concentrations of the heavy metal exceeded the legal limit of 0.3 micrograms per cubic meter of air during the period and spiked up to four times higher, prompting the EPA to cite S.H. Bell with violations of the federal Clean Air Act.
The alarming findings come three years after investigators stumbled across S.H. Bell while taking a closer look at two nearby sites that stored dusty piles of petroleum coke along the Calumet River.
Monitors at one of the sites owned by KCBX Terminals picked up high levels of manganese on days when winds blew across the river from the vicinity of S.H. Bell’s facility between 101st and 103rd streets. After S.H. Bell repeatedly ignored federal and city orders to install additional monitors, a court-ordered legal settlement required the equipment to be up and running by March.
Records submitted by the company last week showed that S.H. Bell’s pollution problems worsened during the summer. Manganese levels exceeded the federal limit on seven of the nine days sampled during June.
Neighborhood activists and national environmental groups said the test results reinforce the need for more rigorous oversight of polluters on the Southeast Side, which continues to struggle with the legacy of contamination from the area’s once-thriving steel industry.
“As long as the city looks at these issues in piecemeal fashion, dirty and dangerous projects will continue to be pushed on this community,” said a joint statement from the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, the Southeast Environmental Task Force, Mom’s Clean Air Force, Natural Resources Defense Council and National Nurses United.
In an email, Pittsburgh-based S.H. Bell said more than two dozen other facilities that handle manganese could be partially responsible for pollution detected by monitors around the company’s site. Levels of the heavy metal should drop below the federal limit after S.H. Bell finishes installing a new dust-collection system this month, a company spokeswoman said.
Manganese is a naturally occurring element used to make steel stronger and more rust resistant. It generally isn’t visible in the air, unlike the gritty, lung-damaging petcoke dust that blew from the KCBX piles until months of pressure from politicians and the public forced the company to remove them.
Researchers once assumed manganese posed hazards only for steelworkers. But the EPA and other health agencies are increasingly concerned about manganese pollution wafting into areas near facilities that handle the heavy metal. Regular exposure can cause manganism, a condition with symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease, and can make it more difficult for children to learn and remember.
About 20,000 people, including 1,730 children age 5 and younger, live within a mile of the S.H. Bell facility.
The EPA, Illinois EPA and Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued statements vowing to get tough with the company.
“Just as we held petcoke handlers to higher standards, we will ensure that companies either clean up or shut down,” Emanuel said.
In Ohio, federal and state officials have pushed S.H. Bell to curb manganese emissions from its facilities near East Liverpool, a struggling factory town on the Pennsylvania border west of Pittsburgh.
A 2010 federal study found that people living near the Ohio facilities were more likely to suffer body tremors and have problems with motor skills — ailments linked to chronic manganese exposure.

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