Life in the Shadow of the Mountain | S1 E2
Chicago is built on a prairie the skyscrapers downtown tower over a completely flat landscape which made it all the more remarkable when John Christopher's giant illegal dumps begin to rise out of nowhere casting their long shadows over north Lonsdale and the homes of Gladys, Woodson and Jacqueline Rodney. It was that. At least two stories right. Hall as all of these houses around us. That's so big and he didn't watery down. The dust was all over the neighborhood everywhere. I don't care how much you clean. I still can write my name all Michael's. I have glass tape. I still can write my name in the table. We left off a guy named John Christopher, had established a pair of illegal dumps onto vacant lots north Lauderdale on Chicago's west side, one down the street from his Woodson and miss Rodney and an even bigger one. Just a few blocks away across the street from an elementary school and not only was John Christopher dumping truckload after truckload of gravel and bricks and rusted of medal. He was also operating a rock crusher a giant piece of machinery, the pulverizes concrete into gravel. Whenever he operated the crusher we all know because our buildings would be shaking and you could hear the mortar falling could hear the more falling through the walls of sound like the house houses were about to carry van here. The rock crusher two blocks away because it was shaking ground. Not only could we at when it was shaking. Our houses are more was falling out of the buildings to the point where we could see outside from inside the house. MS. Rodney MS Woodson and their neighbors and north Lonsdale had confronted John Christopher the dumper and we're determined to take them to court. The got the city of Chicago on their side and sue John Christopher that was in June of nineteen ninety. He said, I'll do what I won't when all and how I want. And I'll stay there as long as I want to know. You won't. We, you definitely not going to stay here. Except he would for longer than anyone could have predicted. I'm Robin namer from USA today. This is the city. As a kid growing up in granite city, Illinois, Henry Henderson would spend summer nights walking the mile or so from his home to the steel mills and watch them light up the sky. We'd go out in the night when it was really dark and watch them poor, the slag in return the sky into bright, bright, bright brightness because of the intensity of the heat involved in that hundred grew up around steel generations of his family had worked in and around the mills. My great grandfather came from South Wales from huge mining district, and he was, you know, at the Blast Furnace and who's a worker, and they'd come out, he'd come out every day to see a flag was flying at the mill to see if they're hiring, but but moving from mining to steal was in some ways moving from wife that was almost indistinguishable from the Roman surf into part of the modern. Demy Henry saw how vital the mills were to his family, but also the pollution. They spewed into his town, the toxic metals dumped in nearby waterways, deep black, smoke pouring out of the smokestacks and he wasn't alone and thinking, this was a problem. This was the nineteen seventies when the environmental movement was taking root and Henderson got swept up in it. It's fundamentally a question of Justice really key areas you where you can see significant issues of the Justice and the community is within the environment where burdens fall and we're benefits are not going Henry, went to law school, moved to Chicago and went to work for the Illinois Torney general on a task force dealing with hazardous waste. We had a huge number of issues. It went directly to questions of equity, Justice, quality of life, health and safety, and this was an opportunity to really get into actually solving problems us. The law as way to solve problems. Henry Henderson was beginning to make a name for himself as someone who used the full weight of the law to defend people from hazardous waste in his two or so years. At the attorney general's office. He worked on about ten cases, prosecuting dangerous polluters. An often the best weapon in Henry's arsenal was an injunction a legal order that forces someone to stop what they're doing under threat of arrest. So like in one of his cases, he was able to get a court order to stop a bunch of waste transfer stations from leaking into surrounding farmland. Henry Henderson, got good at cases like these going to judge getting an injunction and forcing polluters to immediately stop whatever they were doing. And so when the north Lonsdale dumping Hase's landed on his desk in June of nineteen ninety, he thought it would be an open and shut case. By this point, Henderson had moved to a new job as an environmental lawyer for the city of. Chicago, and he thought it would be pretty easy to do north Lonsdale what he'd done so many times before go to judge and get an injunction. Because this was clearly beginning of gigantic problem and needed to be stopped. Did you have full faith at this point that the courts would deliver Justice that the courts would produce some meaningful results in the situation? Yes, I actually actually I did. With an altar. Boy was. Can want want you. We don't have audio the legal proceedings against John Christopher. So we hired some actors to dramatize scenes from day city. Lawyers questioned him under oath. No. Our cast includes John Christopher c. h. r. s. t. o. p. h. e. r. his lawyer, a guy named James grainy purposes of the question. She will be specific when she had what she is speaking about. And one of Henry Henderson's colleagues. Another city lawyer named Susan her Dina. When I am talking about waste, I am talking about the materials that your company ordinarily receives and sells. Okay. Everything you're about to hear is taken for Begum from transcripts of that deposition here. Sure, sure. You got. Please state your full name for the record. John Christopher, spell the last name c. h. or s. t. o. p. h. e. r. Mr. Christopher we have met before. Let me formally introduce myself. My name is Susan her Dina, and I represent the city of Chicago in connection with the lawsuit that has been brought against you your company Christiane and various other defendants. Yes. John Christopher named his company, Chris, John. Are you aware of any complaints that waste material from the Kildare site has been disposed of on the public sidewalks surrounding the Kildare site? What do you mean by waste? I'm using that term to describe items that your company deals with either concrete debris dirt clay asphalt, any of those materials, we will object to the use of the term waste when referring to those items. We will object to the use of the term waste was this pas on this firmament. Henry Henderson had previously won cases dealing with hazardous waste according to federal law. Hazardous has a very specific definition for waste to be considered hazardous. It has to be highly flammable or reactive or toxic stuff like that. Henderson new this case would be different because a pile of crushed Uproxx is not the same thing as glow in the dark sludge in the strictest legal sense. This waste was not hazardous, but he never expected his team to have to debate whether in the eyes of the law. These dumps were in fact waste. What do you mean by wastes in a kind of shrewd and tactical move John Christopher, and his lawyer argued that this stuff wasn't waste at all. We will check to use of turn waste when referring to Adams for the purposes of this deposition when I am talking about waste, I am talking about the materials that your company ordinarily receives and sells. Okay. So we are talking about concrete rebar, asphalt clay stone, things that nature after something that is not waist. Okay. I don't want to get into for the purpose of the question. We specific when she identifies what she's speaking about. You are just not to answer. When she uses the term waste unless she specifies I don't handle waist. Okay. And I know I am getting brought into a suit because of ways as the defining dirt asphalt, broken concrete is waste. I know that, but that is not waste, and that is not an issue to go over at this point. I don't handle waste it. Is your contention that you handle material? Is that material. Material. John Christopher argued that he wasn't dumping waste but recycling material. Under city law. Anything that could be recycled was not considered waste. And in a legal brief, John Christopher's lawyer argued that the materials at the site weren't waste because they were being recycled. Remember John Christopher said that he was operating a rock crusher to pulverize all of that waste material, whatever it was and recycle it back into gravel. Of course, the problem with that argument was that only a very small percentage of the stuff he was bringing to the lots was being recycled. Much of it was just left there. The judge. In this case, Lester Forman died in two thousand three. So we weren't able to ask him what he thought about these arguments. But Henry Henderson says at the judge, took these arguments seriously enough to consider the junk Christopher could be in the right. This was clue. The case here where you could say, look, there is a value to this concrete. There's embedded value in all kinds of things can be treated as waste. That's actually the genius of the recycling movement is looking at imbedded value and things that are treated as waste, but actually have reuse possibility Henderson also believes that the judge was swayed by the fact that in a strict technical sense, nothing being trucked. The lot was hazardous as wasn't cyanide or arsenic. Nothing obviously threatened to catch fire or poison people. He thinks it would have been easier to get the injunction if it had been. Just two days after the city sued the judge denied the request for an injunction city tried again, and their second request was also denied. The case would keep working its way through the legal system. But while it did Christopher would be free to continue dumping. How did you feel during this time? I mean, I can imagine frustrated and going to a lot of community meetings was people being very, very upset and outrage about the fact that this actively was continuing to recur in their community. This was this is a big deal. We will fighting in court and he was still operating. Again, here's Jacqueline Rodney who live near one of the dumps eight put is much as he could on the site while we were in court. Ten months after John Christopher, I showed up north Lonsdale. The dumps had almost doubled in height and the neighborhood was about to find out just how destructive this non hazardous material could be. That's after the break. The right hire can make a huge impact on your business. That's why it's so important to find the right person. 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Slash the city and entering the offer code the city THE CIT y in the checkout code space, Bumba dot com. Slash the city offer code the city. Undeterred by the lawsuit, John Christopher kept dumping and every day the prairie wind would blow through the piles of debris and cover north Lonsdale in a layer of thick grey dust. When the dust will fly, you had look Los on Hewlett gloss will be full of dirt. I mean, you could taste it on your lips in your mouth. This is Michelle Ashford in nineteen ninety. She was nineteen years old and she lived just a few houses south of the larger dump and it was. I mean, it will be just a big Kushtia win, and it will just have the closure as Korea, mouth or whatever. Because once we experienced it, we knew, oh, become to wear, we cover up full when going mouse. So mill city issue. Issue, the prostitutes of yours out used to really have a problem with prostitution. That's Michelle's mother, Rita Ashford. She's talking about Roosevelt road the street, south of the larger of the two dumps the guys say, could come and pull up on the side of the dump. You know, all of that stuff is there and that's where they did their business at just to be clear. The dump had gotten so big that it cast the side street next to it into darkness with the prostitutes. Being able to go back there really like high. You couldn't actually see them unless you go down killed there. You actually see they will be down and it will be down ternan dates and everything right there on the street. The dumps had become a magnet that's actually a term of art in environmental circles. They were magnet in that attracted other illegal and unsavory stuff. The rents. No, that Retz actually took the seem it like that. Own it. You girl if it wasn't a. Hundred rats at one one and people were fighting rents. They will get an at homes. Everybody was talking about miss houses, Mattie, digging tunnel in her house. Everybody was dealing with the rats. We could sit on Miller's ports, look at the reds, one on the rocks crossbows of it. I'm really got hit by causing millet streaks. The Ashford's can laugh about a lot of this now, despite how serious it all was, but the dumps also began to affect their family in ways they couldn't laugh off. I have holes cake with that doesn't dust horrible because we didn't have a conditioning. So we put those fans in the windows, the fan, withdrawing in the dust as well. So is sucking into doesn't dustless something I'm in town. MS Ashford's daughter Sharona had just given birth to a baby girl Katrina. And when she was just a month old, she started to get sick here. Sure enough. I is a call fish, real bad call knows wanted in a skin was really dark. Serena took her daughter to a clinic, but she didn't get better than to the hospital in north Lonsdale and still get back still hit the shortness of Radic breezing. So I told us read, I say this something, something that's not right with that you kill too, because you hold her up and listen to her back. You could hear the weasing. And so she she was pan like that. You could actually hear it. Some like almost like a whistle. Finally, they took baby Katrina to the big hospital. They took a right on, and then that's when I gave her the first treatment he told me longs was congested and stuff, and they told me she asked us she was bronchial, but that's what they called the Ashford's now faced a horrible kind of new normal back afloat in the hospital almost every day almost every day. Yeah. In a month's time, we've probably was in the hospital. Twenty five days out of the month. Doctors prescribe the baby, a drug called prednisone and kept her on it for years. It's a powerful steroid with potentially powerful side effects of face was like so huge. My dad used to call to because she was so huge from the prednisone taking it trying to treat the asthma. We couldn't care. We have. We have to move around in the stroller. She was so heavy. She a growth. So you know be? Yeah, my. The Ashford's are convinced that the dust caused the baby's asthma, but proving cause and effect between a specific environmental hazard and a specific person's illness is often really difficult as Ashford and others actually tried in vain to get government agencies to come in and do some kind of survey or study that would provide data on the overall impact of the dumps. What I'm really wishes that they have in a medical team to Comey. And to check to see if in how that dust had -ffected them after living around that and breathing in that stuff. So I cannot tell you for certain. Yes. These dumps gave this baby asthma, but I can't tell you that the Environmental Protection Agency classifies construction, debris dust as particular matter, tiny particles that can be harmful to breathe, especially if you're very young or very old or have other kinds of breathing problems already. And other public health studies done at this time found that rates of asthma in Chicago were twice the national average. Those rates were even higher in some black neighborhoods, including north Lonsdale. And as we were all sitting around talking miss Ashford in her daughters started running through all the other people in their family who had asthma, which seemed to get worse as the dumps got bigger. There were Serena's other kid, her son Reginald. He gets been about Babbo six. He got a cold too. Is that real heart call than there was their nephew, Trayvon when he was the arm baby, he ended up whereas MMA, yes, she, she had own personal machine at home because he had it so much running back of all the hospital. So much than there were their neighbors. The Dickerson's. Daniel, Daniel has asthma real bad. They lived why up on dunk on the ward lows. Debbie wasn't another one that was dealing with an asthma who of a mad because they live right up on it. How could they not. To this family. The dumps were clearly a hazard, and the courts could have stopped John Christopher two days after the city filed suit. If the judge had agreed. After Henry Henderson, the city lawyer failed to get an injunction. He realized that if he was going to sway the judge, he'd have to change his tactics. So rather than argue that John Christopher was breaking the law on technical grounds, like not having the right permits or debating what even his waist Henderson and his team would hammer home the actual harm being done to the community. But John Christopher pivoted to instead of just tagging people. He also began waging a hearts and minds campaign to try to sway people from north Lonsdale to his side. He hired someone from the neighborhood to act as a community lease on and paradoxically. He offered to help clean up other vacant, lots in the area by giving people dirt. He'd screamed at the dumps. And some people took John Christopher his word. I found this petition signed by thirty north Lauderdale residents. It reads the following persons welcome Christiane. That's his company Christiane into the community and are grateful that the company is involved in a beautification project that will benefit the community and its residents. John Christoper took this petition and submitted into evidence during the court case to try to convince the judge of his good works north Lonsdale. He also started handing out money, small amounts, fifteen dollars here, ten dollars there sensibly to pay for cleaning supplies. MS Ashford brought this up. When we started talking about her neighbors, the Dickerson's. Mattel, yell, something shale. Let's be straight about deal. Millie got money from John Milly, Milly Dickerson. Whose apartment was right on the same lot as the larger of the two dumps and whose son had asthma as we were talking MS Ashford's daughter called Millie Dickerson deceives around that day leader in the conversation. MS Dickerson actually walked into the interview and told us she had taken money from John Christopher game day, talked to me and he's washing hanging clothes on beg poet. Any told me see that. You don't man about that. We overhand dumping this dump and then how he's Monnet to by using detergent and wash tone Wednesday month acid. But it washed my trolls Bacall that miss was getting all in my house. I had son at as and all that my house was turbo. Miss Dickerson and others living. You're the one junk Christopher to compensate them for all the damage he'd already done. But back trial, John Christopher turned around and use this against them. He claimed they weren't really worried about the dumps. They're just trying to shake him down. Here's how he described interaction. He supposedly had with one Northland resident to the city's lawyer. Let's go back to our reenactment. Can you give me an idea how many people complained? Five seventy, not all at once in. Can you give me a general idea of the nature of your conversation with these people? You really don't wanna know. Know I do wanna know who give me ten dollars giving you ten dollars. Yeah, you, you ain't going to make it off Roosevelt road. And what was your response to that will see? I'm here. Did you get the names of these people? I didn't need to the care of myself. How did you take care of it? I just told them my, it ain't nice as mother nature for ten dollars. John Christopher was painting himself as the victim and to some it seemed as rather than compensating them, he was trying to buy their silence. Here's Jacqueline. Rodney who heard from earlier talking about living next to the rock crusher. When I went into coordinate, asked me to testify, yes, me did. I'll want money. John Christopher, did the lawyer when I was sitting in the deposition ESPN what is it do? Do you want? Do you want money? What is it that you want from this operation? And I said, I want you to move. I want you to leave my neighborhood because she's destroying it. He told me, I wish we had you on our teams. And I didn't know what that meant. What does that mean? And you know, they thanked me for being there. I didn't know what that meant. John Christopher had previously cast doubt on the city's legal arguments, and now he cast doubt on the residents motives. So one full year after he first showed up, the city's lawsuit was still grinding its way through the court and the dump across the street from the elementary school had grown into a mountain almost six stories tall, so tall that the piles of concrete slabs towered over the house next door. And ultimately, this mountain took on a nickname mount Henry. How did you died feel about it being called mount Henry. He was quite subdued about quite sad about it. It was like he couldn't get nothing done about you like he'd been duped. I have been used to dunk that there. That's next time on the city. The city is a production of USA today and is distributed in partnership with wondering, you can subscribe to the show on apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you're listening right now, if you liked the show please rate and review us and be sure to tell your friends about us. Our shows reported and produced by Wilson Sayer Jenny Koss and meet Robin Emma or editors Sam Greenspan. Ben Austin is our story consultant original music and mixing by Hannah's Brown, Jennifer Mudge, Chris Henry Coffey, David w starred in reenactments. Additional production by Taylor making about cockerel and Bianca media's Chris Davis is our VP for investigations. Scott Stein is our VP of product are decorative producer is Liz Nelson. Mary Wadsworth is the USA today networks, president and publisher special. Thanks to Michel Yussef and Daniel sped cove. Additional support comes from the fund for investigative journalism and the social Justice news nexus, and Northwestern University. You like this show. Another might enjoy is WBZ's on background, which takes you inside the smoke filled back rooms of Chicago, Illinois government to better understand the people places and forces shaping today's politics. I'm rob Aamer. You can find the city on Facebook and Twitter at the city pod and visit our website where you'll find photos of our characters, John Christopher. Full deposition and more. That's the city podcast dot com.