VETERAN'S PARK — The stench comes and goes — a thick, noxious odor that hangs in the air and assaults the nose.
For years, residents of this Southeast Side neighborhood have complained about putrid smells coming from the manufacturing facilities of Agri-Fine Corp., which sits on a stretch of industrial land between South Torrence and South Muskegon avenues. The company makes an animal feed ingredient called acidulated soapstock, transforming vegetable oil and water discarded by refineries into oil solids used by companies to make feed for livestock.
“It’s a niche business,” reads Agri-Fine’s website. “But an important one. And we do it well.”
But Agri-Fine’s plant is surrounded on three sides by residential neighborhoods, full of modest brick houses and well kept postage-stamp lawns. Homeowners in Jeffery Manor and South Deering say they are plagued by smells from the facility, which they compare to rotten eggs or decomposing corpses.
“It’s unbearable,” said Liz Morua, who has lived just north of the facility for 26 years. “You really don’t want to be outside when you smell it.”
The Illinois Attorney General’s Office filed a complaint in November against Agri-Fine, alleging that the company violated the Illinois Environmental Protection Act with emissions from its plant. An amended complaint filed in May alleges that Agri-Fine “unreasonably interfered" with neighbors' "enjoyment of life” with air pollution from its rail car operations, steam-heated storage tanks, processing vats and natural gas-fired boilers.
The complaint also accuses Agri-Fine of exceeding the legal limit for emissions of two particular gasses — sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, scientific evidence has linked even short-term exposure to sulfur dioxide with a host of respiratory problems, including constriction of the lungs and increased asthma symptoms. It's linked to increased emergency room visits for respiratory illnesses, especially in vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly.
Hydrogen sulfide is an “extremely hazardous gas with a ‘rotten egg’ smell,” according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Illinois Department of Public Health. At high concentrations, exposure to hydrogen sulfide can lead to comas and even death.
The Attorney General’s complaint alleges that Agri-Fine heated and pre-processed raw materials inside its rail cars, letting the material settle with the train doors open, and that it did so without an operating permit. It also says the company built its tanks and boilers without a construction permit and without paying application fees required by the Illinois EPA.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office is seeking civil penalties of up to $450,000 plus $10,000 per violation for every day Agri-Fine was allegedly in violation of the law.
Agri-Fine CEO Michael Hoelzeman did not return an email seeking comment. In previous court documents, Agri-Fine executives told federal officials that the company had been recruited to fill the empty parcel of land in Jeffery Manor, “bringing 20 badly needed jobs to the area.”
Years of complaints led to little action
Peggy Salazar remembers the day the Agri-Fine smell went from an environmental concern to a matter of neighborhood pride. Salazar serves as Executive Director of the Southeast Environmental Taskforce and lives just a few blocks from Agri-Fine. She belonged to a bocce ball league that met in Veteran’s Memorial Park, and on this particular day, visitors from another neighborhood had come to watch the game.
"When they smelled this odor wafting through the community, at first they were alarmed because they didn’t know what they were smelling,” Salazar said. "But then they were repulsed by it.” Salazar’s guests fled the park.
"They apologized, but that was really embarrassing to us because we couldn’t even have visitors,” she said.
Salazar’s group has dealt with a host of environmental issues that have long plagued the industrial Southeast Side. For example, KCBX Terminals Co., the company accused of blanketing the area with petcoke dust, is located just down the street from Agri-Fine.
Salazar and her neighbors have complained ceaselessly about the smell from that company — to the city, to their alderman, to the company, to anyone who would listen.
Indeed, DNAinfo Chicago found that the Chicago Department of Public Health (and its predecessor, the Department of the Environment) received more than 200 complaints about the smell from Agri-Fine dating back to 1993, the earliest year for which data is available. In the complaints, residents said that the smell burned their eyes and throats, left them with headaches and nausea, made them shut their windows and flee indoors.
Salazar said she found the city unresponsive, despite the wealth of complaint calls.
“It’s hard to communicate on a personal level with those departments,” she said. "Everything is done with 311 or online. But try to talk to a person! They’ll tell you call 311."
In an email, a representative for the Chicago Department of Public Health said its staff had made 140 inspections at Agri-Fine in the last three years, and had issued the company 11 tickets in the past 10 years for various code violations.
"CDPH recognizes that clean air is important not only for quality of life, but also for health reasons,” the statement read. "While we have observed Agri-Fine making improvements to their operations over the years, CDPH is supportive of the Attorney General’s efforts.”
Salazar said her group also met several times with former 10th Ward Ald. John Pope, who served from 1999 until this year. Pope told Salazar to "keep calling 311,” she said.
"[He was saying,] 'I have nothing to do with it,' that’s how you could interpret that,” Salazar explained. “He just brushed it off."
Agri-Fine was one of the largest contributors to Pope’s recent re-election campaign, giving the politician $25,000, according to data compiled by the Illinois Board of Elections and Illinois Election Money. Pope faced criticism during the campaign for taking contributions from heavy industry, telling DNAinfo Chicago, “We can’t control who donates to our campaign or not.” Pope was defeated in February by new 10th Ward Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza and did not return calls for comment Friday.
For her part, Sadlowski Garza said she and her staff have now met with company executives, who gave them a tour of the facility. She said she was impressed with Agri-Fine's efforts to curtail the smell.
"They're making an honest effort to be good neighbors," she said.
Still, Sadlowski Garza emphasized that the area's industrial history made her constituents vulnerable, and said that she hoped the company could make better inroads at curbing pollution.
"We need to protect working class families in this neighborhood," she said.
After years of inaction, Salazar told the members of her environmental taskforce to start calling the Illinois EPA, hoping for more traction on the state level. The Attorney General’s complaint was brought at the IEPA’s behest, according to the complaint.
Salazar says she has smelled the odor less frequently since the Attorney General’s Office first filed its claim agains Agri-Fine. She hopes that the state’s efforts will result in more meaningful improvements.
“When you have a situation like that that doesn’t get corrected over time, people lose hope that there will ever be a resolution,” she said.
Agri-Fine is next scheduled to appear in Cook County Court on July 8.
See the full court complaint below.
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