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What Do We Know About the Northwest Incinerator, a Large, Mostly Empty Industrial Site on the West…

Join City Bureau reporters as we explore ideas of development, activism and safeguarding community knowledge. We’ll start with what we’ve learned so far

The chimneys are all that remain of the former Northwest Incinerator at 740 N. Kilbourn. (Photo: Martha Bayne)

Our team of four City Bureau reporters — Martha Bayne, LaCreshia Birts, Darien Boyd, and Amber Colon Nunez — is focusing this spring on the site of the former Northwest Incinerator and the neighborhoods surrounding it.

We are intrigued that, despite the great deal of attention focused on the incinerator while it was active between 1971 and 1996, and its proximity to residential neighborhoods, community knowledge about this industrial site on the border of West Humboldt Park and Austin is so fractured. What it was once, what it is now, and what it could be in the future is, to many we spoke with, a source of mystery, confusion, or simply ancient history.

This spring we’re meeting with local groups and other stakeholders to explore not just the site itself, but what it means to shape future development, who gets that access, and how it might be expanded. To start off we’ll share five things we’ve learned so far.

1. The incinerator was a big deal at the time.

Opened in 1971 at 740 N. Kilbourn, the Chicago Northwest Waste-to-Energy Facility, aka the Northwest Incinerator, only operated for 25 years, but was, for a time, the largest incinerator in North America, capable of burning 400,000 tons of garbage a year. It was shut down in 1996, thanks to both pressure from local environmental activists, who responded in force after the incinerator failed Environmental Protection Agency testing in 1993, and the repeal that year of the controversial Retail Rate Law, which had provided a financial incentive to private incinerator operators. With that incentive gone, the cost of upgrading the incinerator to meet Clean Air Act standards proved prohibitive, and the facility was closed by Mayor Richard M. Daley.

2. People lauded how environmentally friendly it would be.

When it opened, during the long tenure of Mayor Richard J. Daley, incineration of solid waste was believed to be an environmentally sound alternative to landfills, and the pollution-mitigating technology of the facility was state of the art for the time. But according to witness reports, the smoke from its chimneys often smelled extremely foul. Says Marie Henderson, longtime owner of Out of the Past Records at 4407 W. Madison, “I didn’t notice when it shut down, I just noticed that the air got better.” According to DePaul soil scientist James Montgomery, who visited the site in 1993, a visible layer of soot coated the ground and windows around the incinerator.

3. Lead contamination levels are extremely high in the neighborhood.

A study by the Center For Neighborhood Technology reports that in 1994 the facility’s smokestacks emitted 17 pounds of lead per hour, and a health screening in Austin at the time found that 1,638 children had elevated levels of lead in their blood. We are still seeking information about lead levels in the soil around the incinerator site, but soil testing in the neighborhood the early ’90s showed levels of lead high above EPA standards of contamination. Whether the lead came from the incinerator or from, say, lead paint chipping off nearby houses, is not known. We do know that lead levels in water fountains at nearby Orr Academy High School tested at 16 percent above EPA action levels last year; water at some area parks has tested as high as 100 percent above action levels.

4. The future of the site is in limbo.

Activists’ hopes for the creation of a comprehensive recycling or composting facility on the site never came to fruition, though for a time the site was used as a sorting facility for the short-lived Blue Bag recycling program. Today the site is owned by the city, and used as a waste transfer station contracted to Marina Cartage. As recently as 2016 proposals were reportedly circulating among West Side business owners for possible mixed-use redevelopment at the site; the status of those plans is to date unknown.


5. It’s sort of become a landmark.

The incinerator building itself was demolished in 2015 (see above video), but its towering twin 250-foot chimneys remain a striking local landmark. Said one area business owner we spoke with, “Those chimneys just say ‘West Side’.”

Intrigued? Get in touch.

What else should we know about the incinerator site? What would you like to know about it?

Share your memories of the Northwest Incinerator, and tell us what questions you want answered about its past, present and future: Text the word NORTHWEST to 312–697–1791. Or, you can leave a comment here or email us at

BLOG: City Bureau Hosts Community Workshops About Lead Contamination

By Mindy Dillon, City Bureau Documenter

On Monday, March 13, Nissa Rhee of City Bureau hosted the first in a series of events designed to engage and educate Chicago residents about the dangers of lead in their communities. These events follow the publication of “Living with Lead,” a special edition of the South Side Weekly produced by City Bureau and published on December 14, 2016.

Eric Potash, University of Chicago researcher, and Dr. Howard Ehrman, former primary care and assistant commissioner in the Chicago Department of Public Health, joined Rhee, head of the team of journalists that produced this special edition, at Legler Library, 115 S. Pulaski Rd.

The lead experts explained how the current model for addressing lead exposure and lead poisoning in Chicago is reactive as opposed to preventative, and palliative instead of curative.

Potash explained that, currently, once a child tests positive for elevated blood levels, the city is notified and a Lead Investigating Unit attempts to make contact with the family. In this model, the city reacts to an exposure that has taken place and attempts to rectify a situation that has already caused damage. This effort is often hampered by insufficient funds and staff and an inability to establish contact with the families due to unreliable addresses or lack of response to phone calls. In his research, Potash is developing a model that would allow the city to use funds in a more efficient and targeted way to predict where children are most at risk and prevent the exposure in the first place.

Exposure prevention, according to Ehrman, has to be the goal, since no amount of lead is safe in the human body. Ehrman explained that while officials took the right steps by decreasing so-called “normal” rates from 60 to 5 micrograms per deciliter, lead is a neurotoxin that destroys brain cells and anything above zero is not normal. To put the danger in perspective for children on the West and South sides of Chicago, Ehrman explained that children in these communities have two times the risk of children in Flint, Michigan, which has made national news for the severity of health issues caused by high lead levels in its water supply.

Ehrman offered suggestions for individual and immediate action as well as communal and political action. As individuals, immediate steps can be taken:

  1. Use cold water only.
  2. Place filters on every drinking faucet.
  3. Call 311 to request a free water test by Chicago’s Department of Water Management or, as Rhee explained, go to and request one online.
  4. Have soil tested.
  5. Children should always be tested via venipuncture and not by finger prick, which can give false positive and false negatives. Rhee elaborated that every child should be tested at one year of age and again at two.
  6. Be aware that plumbers often still use lead solder on copper pipes as it is easier to work with and they still have a large supply of it. This too can be a source of lead exposure.
  7. Rhee added that residents should text the word LEAD to 312–697–1791 to get data from lead tests in their neighborhood.

Politically, Ehrman suggested that concerned citizens should organize, advocate for stricter laws on landlords, and demand that city officials look to the example set by Massachusetts and Wisconsin and others that are providing grants to property owners to fix, rather than simply mitigate, the problem by replacing service lines.

To be effective, communities should organize by block particularly around areas where water mains are being replaced, Ehrman said. He warned that the sudden rush to replace water mainlines could set the stage for the privatization of Chicago’s water supply—a step that some believe played a role in Flint’s health disaster.

In addition, Chicago needs tougher laws regulating landlords and a grant system to help citizens replace service lines which connect properties to the main water lines, Ehrman said. He suggested that citizens need to advocate for laws, like those in New York City that require landlords of any three-flat or larger building to test for lead every year. Chicago should also follow the lead of Boston and Madison, Wisconsin, that provide grants to property owners to help replace service lines.

Rhee opened the panel to audience questions. Sheila Sutton of the Metropolitan Tenant Organization (MTO) said she has issues with housing vouchers, which in some cases have resulted in worse living conditions, including increased exposure to lead, due to the lack of affordable housing in Chicago and lack of landlord oversight. MTO is contracted by the city to help test homes for lead. Sutton explained that the city has limited resources and will usually only respond to households with elevated lead tests if they have children under two or pregnant women living there.

Troy Hernandez, a Pilsen resident, said he is worried that testing does not actually solve the problem. He added that flushing the water for five minutes anytime the water has been standing in the service lines for an extended period is an effective preventative measure. This means flushing upon waking or returning home at night.

The panel adjourned with the consensus that while paint and dilapidated buildings are still the primary source of lead exposure, the whole lead ecosystem should be looked at and addressed.

The final “Living with Lead” workshop will be Saturday March 25 at 10:30am
at the Thurgood Marshall library, 7506 S. Racine Ave.