Fifth Ward Alderman Delores Holmes said Veolia should be a good neighbor as long as it remains in Evanston, "but the bottom line is, they have to go." Photo by Mary Mumbrue

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In a press conference called by the City of Evanston to update residents on a lawsuit filed against the City of Evanston by Veolia Environmental Services, Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar underscored what he appeared to see as the David-and-Goliath nature of the situation.

Veolia operates a solid waste transfer station on both sides of Church Street just east of Darrow Avenue. More than 50 trucks carrying solid waste enter the station on a daily basis and dump their contents onto a concrete floor, where the waste is swept into larger trucks and taken to other facilities for processing.  The press conference was held on the sidewalk in front of Church Street Village, a residential development that abuts the transfer station.

For years, residents have protested the smell and the increase of pests from the station, and their voices have increased in strength and numbers over the past few years. Last year the City imposed a fee of $2 per for every ton of garbage – which is estimated at 400 to 500 tons per day – transferred at the station.

Veolia has sued the City over that fee, Mr. Farrar said at the March 16 press conference. Veolia also disputes Evanston jurisdiction over the Church Street transfer station, saying that the facility and its operations are under the authority of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Mr. Farrar said. He added that the City believes its home-rule authority gives it the power to impose the fee.

Since the suit was filed, Mr. Farrar said, “Veolia continues a pattern of contact that it has practiced against the City of Evanston. They are contesting every administrative adjudication case filed against them and they are shopping around for a new judge. … This is a French company using $500-an-hour attorneys to bully the City of Evanston.”

According to the website water360.com Veolia’s operations in the United States “include 29 landfills, 72 collection operations, 17 recycling facilities and 43 transfer stations.”

Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said, “Today is a perfect day to have a Veolia press conference. People want to open their windows and work in their gardens,” an allusion to the complaints of many residents that in warm weather the smell from the transfer station is so bad that they cannot open their windows or be in their yards. “Other communities’ trash comes to Evanston,” she said.

Veolia is able to operate the transfer station less than 50 feet from residences, Mayor Tisdahl said, because a provision in Illinois law that prohibits the location of transfer stations less than 1,000 feet from property zoned “residential” exempts transfer stations that were in place before January of 1990. She said it is an “injustice to have a transfer site in a residential area” and voiced the City’s support for a permit for a transfer station in a nearby suburb. She said Lakeshore Waste Services has filed for an IEPA permit to construct a solid waste transfer facility in an industrial area of Morton Grove.

Fifth Ward Alderman Delores Holmes said that in 2006 she and then-Second Ward Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste “began to meet with the City Manager and representatives of Veolia. We dealt with the number of trucks, the smell and the rodents. We came up with a plan for residents to file complaints with the EPA in Des Plaines.” She said she learned subsequently that none of those complaints was processed.

Acknowledging that some of the complaints and activism have come about only after the Church Street Village residential complex was built, Ald. Holmes said, “I say, ‘Thank God for Church Street Village.’ At least they gave a voice to the problem. There are thousands of high school student who go past this dump every day.”

According to the City, between May 16 and Oct. 17 of last year, there were 80 complaints recorded through the 311 system regarding Veolia Transfer.

Ald. Holmes added that Veolia had done “some things” to address some of the problems. “They should be a good neighbor as long as they’re here, but the bottom line is they’ve got to go.”

Most of the 35-40 residents who attended the press conference appeared to be opposed to the transfer station.

Dorothy Headd, who said she has lived in the Fifth Ward for almost three decades, said, “I am not happy about the Veolia Waste Transfer Station being in our neighborhood and I want it to leave.  Many of the residents that I have spoken to about this issue feel the same way.  We are tired of the noise, the odors and congestion. … We, the residents of the Fifth Ward, have many concerns about the Waste Transfer Station being in our neighborhood. We are concerned about our property values, our health, the environment, our safety and the safety of our children.  Having this waste transfer station right in the middle of where we live, work and play puts the residents at risk.” 

Standing with her young daughter, Kristen White said, “I pass by here regularly with my toddler. In addition to the impact this waste transfer station has on surrounding residents, I am deeply concerned about the impact this facility is having on the health of our youth, many of whom pass by here daily on the way to Evanston Township High School and to Mason Park.  What we know about this waste transfer station is – that it stinks, that 90 trucks on average drive through our neighborhood each day to dump their loads, that Veolia processes between 400 and 500 tons of garbage each day, and that Veolia is not using any dedicated, modern technology to sort and determine the contents of their garbage, other than the eyes of their workers. Veolia’s facility should no longer be tolerated by any Evanston resident and we urge you to stand with us today demanding that they leave our community for good.”

Ms. White alluded to a 41-page study by students in the Brady Scholars Program in Ethics and Civic Life at Northwestern University. Professor Laurie Zoloth, who heads the program, said the students were concerned about the issue “because Northwestern is one of the clients of Veolia on this site.” (See sidebar)

Only two residents spoke in favor of the transfer station. Priscilla Giles said she lives only about two blocks from the transfer station, “and I don’t smell it.” She said Veolia provides jobs and generates tax revenues it generates for the City. George Lytle also said he lives near the transfer station but does not smell it.  

Some residents carried signs saying “Dump the dump” and “Honk if you think garbage stinks.” Speakers at the half-hour long press conference were interrupted from time to time by the noise of trucks – 10 of them, said Ald. Holmes – rumbling along Church Street to and from the transfer station.

Brady Scholars’ White Paper on Waste Transfer Stations

Students in the senior class of Brady Scholars at Northwestern University chose as their senior project an investigation into Veolia Environmental Services’ solid waste transfer station on Church Street. Because Northwestern uses Veolia’s services to collect its solid waste, N.U.’s  waste goes through that transfer station. The students examined the transfer station through several lenses: the “often tense relationship between the Northwestern University community and its Evanston neighbors,” the impact of waste transfer stations on the surrounding areas, and the responsibility of university communities to their host towns in the area of creating and disposing of solid waste.

The students found little harm from vibrations caused by the trucks rumbling by but had serious concern about the potential of hazardous materials in the transfer station. Their conclusion was that Northwestern should no longer use Veolia if the solid waste continues to be transferred at the Evanston station.

Whether the transfer station handles toxic materials is neither known nor knowable, according to the Brady paper, because the station “has not been tested for the presence of heavy metals, asbestos, biogenic toxins or levels of organic dust. While it is unclear whether or not these toxins are present at this site, there are several studies that show the presence of harmful toxins at other transfer stations and waste dumps around the United States. It is furthermore worth noting that no systematic effort – other than haphazard ‘visual inspection’ by garbage truck drivers – is made by Veolia ES’s Evanston operators to exclude hazardous loads from entering the site.”

Testing the soil for contamination, the students concluded, could be unproductive, because the site was also used for industrial purposes before it became a transfer station. Still the students compiled a list of IEPA-accredited firms that could test the soil.

A study of vibrations from the trucks entering and exiting the transfer station led to the conclusion that it is “highly unlikely … that the garbage trucks could produce vibrations deep enough to crack any building’s foundations.” The study concluded that other tests, such as “aerosol tests, noise measurement, odor-measurement and vermin counts” would help to complete the impact of the transfer station on the adjacent environment and on the health of nearby residents.