Low-quality air is not low quality because it is somehow a rougher yet viable option; rather low-quality air has things in it that will get inside you and kill you slowly.
By Lily Scherlis
A few years ago, I went on an international field trip to the industrial corridor of Chicago. I say “international” because much of this area, called Calumet, is only kind of part of the U.S. It’s a Foreign Trade Zone, a bureaucratic designation that lets commodities flow in and out of the country free of export licenses and tariffs. The members of my graduate seminar huddled on the edge of the Calumet River, a human-straightened industrial thruway. We learned that in 1848 the U.S. military permanently reversed the Calumet River in an attempt to drain Lake Michigan of the industrial waste polluting it. Our guide, the activist and artist Brian Holmes, pointed out a glowing yellow triangle across the water. From far away, it looked like a tiny Ansel Adams mountain in vivid neon color—a solitary, fluorescent dune.
He identified the pile for us as sulfur, which isn’t as dangerous as pet-coke, but still produces a lot of dust, and here by the lake was a thirty-foot pyramid of pea-like sulfur granules. The technical term for this dust is “fugitive dust,” as if the sulfur molecules are trying to escape detection. The human eye cannot see anything smaller than 40 microns across, unless there’s a lot of it. Fugitive dust isn’t obvious, like a smokestack is. It rather goes unseen. We need proxies to detect it, monitoring tools that register it and make it legible to us as a quantity. Economic supply chains work similarly. They disappear from view, receding into the invisible nowhere of anonymous commerce, hiding their impacts on specific sites and the bodies nearby, appearing only as quantities of money and product. Sulfur storage is one of those rare moments where the infrastructure that defines industrial commerce becomes strangely seductive. Despite that, the Chicago sulfur pile is functionally invisible, hidden behind a maze of access roads. The pile peeks out from behind towering aluminum silos, tanker rail cars, conveyor belts, and a wire fence. It smells as if someone mixed a sliver of hardboiled egg with a little disinfectant and left it out in the snow. If you can smell it you’re breathing in its particles, obviously, but maybe it’s best not to think about these things.
National Ambient Air Quality Standards have existed since the Clean Air Act of 1963; they continue to structure environmental policy despite the Trump administration’s success at gutting their content and obstructing their enforcement. Regulators talk about “reduced air quality” as if the oxygen is coming through at a lower resolution, like a standard definition video in the era of 4K. The euphemism suggests that the air simply lacks clarity. But low-quality air is not low quality because it is somehow a rougher yet viable option; rather low-quality air has things in it that will get inside you and kill you slowly. Fugitive dust has two risks—first, it will get into your lungs, and second, it will get into your blood. If it gets into your lungs, the dust will deposit into fissures and crevasses in the mucusy tissue, forming little piles of sulfuric deposit on your alveoli. Risk is measured according to the size of the particulate. Small particles can burrow deeper into the walls of your lungs, lodging themselves in the membranes where gas exchange takes place. Even smaller particles can pass through cracks in the walls of your lungs and get into your blood. In Chicago, the sulfur pile sits between East Side and Hegewisch, predominantly Latinx neighborhoods. Gulf Sulphur Services, the corporation who maintains the pile, doesn’t monitor its own fugitive dust output (most operations do), but Washington High School in the East Side has a monitor which “routinely registers the state’s highest levels” of a number of toxic metals, according to Michael Hawthorne in the Chicago Tribune. Altgeld Gardens, just to the west, is above the ninety-fifth percentile in the state of Illinois for levels of exposure to particulate matter according to the EPA. Anthropologist Christine J. Walley, who grew up on the East Side, writes in her book Exit Zero that “the permeability of our bodies underscores that there is a kind of materiality to class that is rarely fully acknowledged,” a toxic physicality that gnaws away at residents’ health.
During Walley’s youth, there were 117 industrial operations near the Calumet, spanning steel, chemicals, construction materials, and grain handling. It was an age of uninhibited dumping involving nitric, sulfuric, and muriatic acids, arsenic and lead, slag and DDT. Hegewisch and the East Side were both built on top of sandy soil, ground that could easily soak up industrial waste and get saturated with chemicals. Toxins crept into daily life from above and below. Unlike nearby neighborhoods, home to predominantly white industrial workers, Altgeld Gardens was designed as public housing for Black World War II veterans returning to the US. It was structurally isolated from the rest of Chicago, physically severed from other Calumet residential neighborhoods by landfills, and its residents were socially divided from their neighbors by racism and class anxiety.
Walley notes that though industry-related devastation worsened tensions, pollution and its effects were also something held in common. They formed a “common landscape that affects the bodies of all who lived there, even if in unequal ways,” and brought communities together in resistance. Environmental justice movements emerged out of Altgeld Gardens in the late 80s, when residents grew frustrated with the cosmetic preoccupations of the white middle-class environmental efforts of the 70s. Activists have mounted extensive intervention efforts; in the mid-2010s they fought for and won a ban on open-air petcoke storage along the Calumet River. After multiple years of protesting and lobbying the city, including a 2015 blockade of a petcoke storage facility, activists were victorious in 2016. The Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, led by community organizer Olga Bautista, has also filed complaints about Gulf Sulfur Services. But safe air remains elusive; petcoke and other pollutants still pass through the area on uncovered trains, trucks, and barges.
And still the sulfur pile remains—a highly engineered two-and-a-half acre storage device for industrial byproducts of oil refinement. Tanker trucks arrive with molten sulfur, which is pumped into the massive silos full of yellow lava, a thousand-tons of neon ooze. This fluid passes through a sieve, and individual droplets fall into a water bath and solidify. A series of conveyor belts then transports these pellets outside to join the pile. Sulfur is easier to store in solid form: you can leave it in a big heap. The pile is walled off by a lip of asphalt that is supposed to protect the sulfur from spilling into the water. An attorney for Gulf Sulphur Services claimed that the resultant solid sulfur cannot “‘escape’ from a properly designed and operated stockpile,” but none of this is exactly full proof. For example, in January 2019, a train derailment in Blounts Creek, North Carolina dumped six- to eight-thousand gallons of molten sulfur near a residential community.
Because of incidents such as that, Gulf Sulphur has had to explain and document their behavior to city regulators. In a nine-page letter from 2014, Gulf Sulphur Services sought the sympathies of the Chicago Department of Public Health, appealing to the city’s financial interests and warning about regulation supposedly harming “jobs and tax revenue for the City of Chicago.” Gulf Sulphur represents itself as an earnest small business under duress from harsh new regulatory pressures, a little operation liable to go under after having invested so much in Chicago. It’s a cynical but effective strategy with a long history. The company had no interest in monitoring dust levels, covering conveyor belts, or limiting the sulfur pile’s height. Nor did they want to move the pile to sit at least fifty feet from the waterway, or to cease handling the waste in high winds, or in maintaining the required dust suppressant system. Their lawyers called every regulation an “arbitrary hardship,” repeating the refrain that these measures do not apply to the specific properties of sulfur. At one point, the corporation delivered a sample pellet of sulfur to Department of Public Health to attempt to demonstrate its safety. In the 2014 letter they offer to deliver another. I like imagining a GSS representative being repeatedly dispatched to City Hall to deliver one single yellow dustless pea after another.
Two organizations, the NRDC and the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Pet Coke, challenged the company’s claims. The Coalition noted that “the application does not even mention the neighborhood, let alone remotely address the potential effects on nearby residents of the southeast side—a working-class and minority-populated area.” They pointed out that the corporation is misleading about the cost—$125,000 for safety features isn’t much, relative to their initial investment of $11.5 million. “The regulations are not unreasonable or arbitrary simply because they are not convenient for the regulated parties,” the coalition wrote, but not complying with reasonable safety expectations imposed a “cost on the City of Chicago in the form of pollution… [that] has been paid by the people who live and work nearby.” Despite the coalition’s reasonable statement, the following August, the city approved every request from Gulf Sulphur, except for the height exemption.
On March 27, 2016, five months before the city’s decision, a hazardous materials response team was called to a building near the sulfur pile. The fire department reported that a shocking five-hundred gallons of sulfuric acid had spilled. Elsewhere throughout the country there were similar incidents. In January of that same year, a man died of sulfur inhalation in Tampa, Florida when a thirty-foot pile of sulfur collapsed onto his bulldozer. A handful of coworkers unsuccessfully tried to dig him free, and many had to be hospitalized for exposure. In 2017, a similar pile in Wyoming caught fire. That pile had been left since the 1950s, abandoned for six decades. A firefighter at the scene took a video of bright blue molten debris pouring off the pile as it shot columns of fire into the sky. “Weirdly beautiful, and incredibly dangerous,” said the Irish Examiner. The video got more than two million views.
The Calumet river sulfur pile is hardly alone in this industrial corridor. Across the river sits a compound of soaring geometric forms in various shades of off-white. This is an outpost of Cargill, Inc., the highest-revenue private corporation in the world. Cargill’s plant is almost as charismatic as the sulfur pile, comprising massive cream-colored cones and domes. Cargill is one of those shadowy corporations that has next to no public face. It has no need for good press, however, because it trades in agricultural commodities that almost never touch consumers. Only their proxies go to market. It trades grain and other “agricultural commodities,” as their website puts it, including (but not limited to) palm oil, steel, salt, transport, the raising of livestock, livestock feed, starch, glucose syrup, vegetable oils for processed foods, vegetable oils for industrial use, beauty and personal care products, risk management services, and financial services. Cargill owns a two-thirds share of another corporation, Mosaic, Inc., which launched Gulf Sulphur Services in 2003 in a joint venture with Savage Services, “a national leader in providing services to petroleum refiners,” per their website. Mosaic itself is the result of a merger between Cargill’s plant nutrition division and a company called IMC Global, “the world’s largest producer and marketer of concentrates, phosphates, and potash crop nutrients.” During the collapse of the last major U.S. sulfur mine in 2000, IMC Global purchased that facility’s owner, Freeport Sulfur. Freeport built the mine in 1991; it was evacuated when Hurricane George hit in 1998, and, according to Gerald Kutney, The mine recovered, but sulfur prices plummeted, and Freeport went bankrupt.
There aren’t many actual sulfur mines anymore. Instead, sulfur production constitutes what a U.S. Bureau of Mines representative called an “unusual situation.” Another way to put this is that the sulfur industry is mostly an accessory to the petroleum and natural gas industries. While sulfur has a seemingly endless list of uses as a fertilizer, a pesticide, and antifungal, a vulcanizer, and a bleach, sulfur production largely takes place because big oil is required by regulations to avoid emitting sulfur dioxide. The gas reacts with water and air and sun to form the liquid sulfuric acid, which falls to earth as acid rain. Usually people harvest sulfur from sour crude oil, which is called “sour” because of the high concentration of sulfur. They take the sulfur out by heating it up until it turns into a gas. Once it’s gas, they add oxygen and sulfur dioxide and react it at 2500°F. The results are liquid elemental sulfur, some water, and a lot of leftover thermal energy, which powers the other refinery processes. The sulfur dioxide is then transformed into a characteristic yellow goop. Demand for this goop lags behind supply: “some of the refineries face this ‘sulfur challenge’ by storing and managing accumulating sulfur mountains on their properties,” according to environmental researcher Bo Weidema. Companies like Gulf Sulfur are in large part storage services for oil and gas. The sulfur pile is thus evidence of the ongoing struggle of fossil fuel interests against regulation. It temporarily squirrels away potential global harm, paying for that storage by inflicting local harm on the people who live nearby.
Meanwhile, speaking at BMO Capital Markets’ annual conference in 2014, and CEO Larry Stranghoener of Mosaic Inc. devoted little of his time calamities or public health but a lot of it to talking about cash. “Good morning, all… You folks do conferences very well, and we are pleased and honored to be here…. We have consistently generated strong operating cash flow including over $600 million in the challenging first quarter… returning substantial sums of capital to our shareholders.” Two years later, a tank of molten sulfur caught fire at one of Mosaic’s plants in Riverview, Florida. That same year, at a company facility in New Wales, Florida, a sinkhole opened up and swallowed two hundred gallons of water. The water was radioactive, having been contaminated with a fertilizer byproduct which made it into the local aquifer. In July 2019, a pipeline at the same facility leaked, releasing two-hundred gallons of sulfuric acid into the soil. But at conferences like BMO’s, the sheer physical force of minerals like sulfur disappears into numbers and buzzwords. The social norms of these events are designed to help the people there forget the sinkholes and the tumors, to make the bottom line seem more real than earth and lungs and air.
Lily Scherlis has written for Cabinet, Jacket2, Post45 Contemporaries, Guernica, and elsewhere. She is Nonfiction Editor at Chicago Review, an artist, and a PhD student in English and Performance Studies at the University of Chicago. She grew up in Pittsburgh and lives in Chicago.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.