Chicago’s air pollution hotspots: New sensor network reveals neighborhood air quality disparities

Read the full story at MuckRock.

This investigation, “Chicago’s Air Pollution Hotspots,” is a collaboration between the Chicago Sun-Times, WBEZ, the Cicero Independiente and MuckRock, with support from Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation. Reporting by Smarth Gupta, Dillon Bergin, María Inés Zamudio, Charmaine Runes and Brett Chase. Derek Kravitz of MuckRock, Dave Newbart of the Sun-Times and Matt Kiefer of WBEZ edited.

When Irma Morales moved to Little Village nearly three decades ago, she vividly remembers the thin layer of dust blanketing the ground. The single mother of five lived about a mile from a coal plant.

“When I walked outside, my shoes would be covered with dust,” Morales said in Spanish.

Morales joined the 12-year community-led effort to close the Crawford Power Plant.

“We shut them down,” said Morales, adding she was diagnosed with a brain tumor during the campaign. “But for what? So they can bring more diesel trucks?”

The plant closed in 2012 and was replaced by a 1 million-square-foot Target warehouse bringing an estimated hundreds of trucks per day to the neighborhood. Morales and other protesters tried to stop the development.

Even the building process polluted the neighborhood. A botched implosion of a 378-foot smokestack from the old coal plant left her neighborhood blanketed in dust in April 2020.

“Why are you selling … [our health] to the highest bidder?” Morales asked of city officials, saying her neighborhood is basically a “sacrifice zone” for industry.

Indeed, in one of the most wide-scale surveys of air quality in Chicago, some stretches of this mostly Mexican community were found to have the highest pollution levels in the city, along with portions of Austin, Englewood, Auburn Gresham, Irving Park and Avondale that see heavy traffic or are near industrial areas, an analysis of readings from newly-installed air sensors show.

The data is supplied by Microsoft, which consulted with the city and community groups before installing 115 of the sensors mostly on CTA bus shelters last summer, and has been collecting readings from them every five minutes over the past 10 months.

Even with more than 100 sensors, it’s not nearly enough to cover the entire city and that inhibits a complete analysis of pollution for large swaths of the Southeast and Far South sides — areas long known to have poor air quality. Still, the data provide some of the most extensive hyperlocal measurements of air quality in Chicago, specifically in the high-pollution months of July through October 2021.

This story is part of a months-long reporting collaboration, “Chicago’s Air Pollution Hotspots,” on Chicago’s air quality by the Chicago Sun-TimesWBEZ and MuckRock.

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