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Koppers monument erected; environmental justice fight continues on Carbondale's Northeast Side

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In shadows of steel silhouettes, nearly 100 people gathered this past weekend at Attucks Park, where a new monument was dedicated to those poisoned by toxic pollution and contamination from the old Koppers Railroad Tie Plant.

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Nearly 100 people attended the dedication ceremony of the new Koppers Tie Plant monument Sunday afternoon in Attucks Park on Sunday in Carbondale.

The dedication served as a platform for the tie plant history and stories from affected individuals to be shared publicly. The monument’s purpose is to create dialogue, increase awareness, and promote healing for the people exposed to chemical toxins.

Dan Johnson, an artist from Alto Pass, designed the memorial.

“I challenge all of you to get on board and stand with us in the fight for justice for the workers, the families, and the community - everyone who was affected by the Koppers Tie Plant. Let it permeate your hearts, your soul, and your spirit so that we can make a difference. Now is the time,” Melissa McCutchen, a member of Carbondale Concerned Citizens, said at the beginning of the ceremony.

The monument was established by Carbondale Concerned Citizens with Carbondale Spring, a people’s organization, and made possible by funding the Healing Illinois Grant from the Chicago Community Trust through the Southern Illinois Community Foundation.

The Carbondale Park District and the city of Carbondale also contributed to the erection of the monument.

Site history

The old Koppers Railroad Tie Plant operated from 1902 to 1991. At one point in its history, it was the largest wood treating plant in the nation and employed 200 people.

In the beginning, the company, then called Ayer-Lord Tie Plant, recruited Black men to move to Carbondale and work at the facility.

The city of Carbondale segregated black workers and their families to the Northeast Side of Carbondale, bordered on the north by the railroad tie plant.

Workers treated lumber cut into railroad ties and utility poles with coal-tar creosote to delay decay. Unbeknownst to them, their families and neighbors in the Northeast Side of Carbondale, the creosote that soaked the employees’ clothes and skin and the smoke billowed from the plant was toxic, contaminating their water sources, their soil, and air.

The chemicals in coal-tar creosote burn or irritate the skin and the eyes, cause convulsions and mental confusion, and lead to kidney and liver disorders after a brief exposure, according to the federal Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.​

Prolonged and frequent exposure can lead to irritation of the respiratory tract and cancer.

'We didn't know'

When former employees like brothers Robert and Willie Ollie, James Chappell and his grandfather Shelley Chappell, and Alfred Brown worked at the facility, the Koppers company never told them about the toxicity of the creosote they worked with every day.

Neither were their families — nor the community in which they lived.

“I lived right in front of Koppers. You walk out our backdoor, you’ll walk right into Koppers Tie Plant,” Shelia Neal Brown said.

Before the EPA and city leaders admitted to the tie plant site being contaminated, her father learned that fact and shared it with other Carbondale residents.

While growing up, Brown got rashes on her arms and face, she said.

“We didn’t know what was going on. The doctors would say we were allergic to something when all it was, was the Koppers Tie Plant,” Brown said.

The old Koppers Tie Plant site, now owned by Beazer East Inc., is designated a brownfield by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA said in April that soil remediation is complete, but former Koppers employees, their families, and the affected community disagree. They argue that the fight for justice continues.

“Understand and know, our fight continues. This situation has not been rectified. The soil will never be fully remediated. So, to say the soil is remediated is a lie,” McCutchen said in an interview.

Who's accountable? 

The disagreement over soil cleanup is one part out of a long-standing dispute between the affected community and the EPA and Beazer East.

Since the early 2000s, northeast side residents and former Koppers employees have raised concerns about the history of toxic pollution at the plant and in their neighborhood to the EPA and the city of Carbondale.

Despite over a decade of sometimes contentious public meetings, the community’s call for justice and accountability for the environmental racism that occurred for nearly 100 years has gone primarily unanswered by the city of Carbondale and the EPA.

“There’s a hesitancy from public institutions to acknowledge the past because there is a lack of accountability. Sometimes people are afraid to acknowledge what has happened in the past because then they have to be held accountable for it,” McCutchen said.

That’s why Carbondale Concerned Citizen Member and northeast side Resident Rodney Morris called the monument a “starting block” during Sunday’s ceremony.

Affected individuals hope the erecting of the memorial sparks new discussions — and more questions.

'Long overdue'

In addition to the monument, motivated Carbondale community members are producing a documentary. There is also a website for affected individuals and their families to share their stories.

Darryl Weber, a descendant whose family suffered from cancer clusters attributed to the environmental contamination and who now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, is seeking a congressional hearing and working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the EPA to evaluate the former employee’s, their families, and residents’ health who are still alive.

Clarissa Cowley, a graduate student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, is investigating the roles of federally funded agencies in handling toxic waste sites near communities of color, specifically Black communities.

According to City Manager Gary Williams, specific plans for the site are unknown by the city.

Despite the troubled relationship between the city and the affected residents, Williams said he believed the monument was overdue.

“Koppers has a significant history in our city. But there is also a lot of negativity and pain surrounding that facility. Memorializing residents’ contribution to Koppers and the city is a significant step, which is long overdue,” Williams said in an interview.

At this point, he said the city’s role is being a conduit between the private company that owns the tie plant site and the affected community.

One initiative of the city in recent years is to be as transparent as possible regarding the Koppers site, Williams said. On the city's website, there is a tab dedicated to historical documents and monthly reports about the contamination on the site.

However, the city’s efforts for transparency and cooperation are not enough for concerned residents. The city refers to the EPA’s information that says the land is cleaned up and the residential community and former employees have limited risk of being exposed to contamination.

Carbondale Spring member and Carbondale Planning and Zoning commissioner Beau Henson said he listens to both narratives - the EPA’s and the affected residents. He is not surprised the city listens to a large international corporation like Beazer East.

To Henson, the historical context of the tie plant and the behavior of the company’s officials are essential to consider when planning the future of the land of the tie plant site.

'Our fight continues'

One primary concern workers, families, and residents have is the lack of action on behalf of the EPA and the city of Carbondale to hold their institutions accountable for the discrimination during the tie plant’s operations.

“It’s strange that people who have the power cease to care,” Carbondale Concerned Citizen member and resident Margret Nesbitt said on Sunday to the ceremony’s audience.

The history that shaped the lives of plant workers, their families, and residents is overlooked by the EPA and the city of Carbondale.

This includes the 1932 thesis of William Stewart, a graduate student from Northwestern University. He had a summer internship at the plant and documented the treatment of Black workers at the plant.

Carbondale resident Pepper Holder shared Stewart’s thesis with the ceremony’s audience on Sunday.

“The very fact that the ties are so heavy makes the works especially perilous. A falling tie, either in a car, off a tram, or from a man’s shoulder, can cause terrible injury,” Stewart wrote. “The men are continually being burned by the creosote...They run an especially great chance of infection because of irritation caused by creosote in an open cut.”

In the same chapter, Stewart documented the danger of overheating in the summer months, with temperatures as high as 114 and one employee dying from a stroke he suffered while working. Later in his thesis, he documents how company agents kept the Black workers in debt to prevent them from leaving by getting them to spend their wages at the company store before they were paid.

Almost a decade after William Stewart visited the tie plant, Shelley Chappell organized the first union at the tie plant in 1941.

“That was unheard of – for a Black man to organize a union with black and white workers there,” James Chappell, Shelley’s grandson who also worked at the tie plant, said on Sunday. “I’m very proud of that.”

Chappell now lives in Springfield and traveled to Carbondale for the dedication ceremony. He said he is proud of the people of Carbondale for erecting the monument.

It is not lost on residents and former workers that the work done by former Koppers employees was integral to America’s 20th-century infrastructure.

“Telephone poles connected America. The railroad connected America from one coast to the next. Without these individuals going to work every day and treating these crossties and telephone poles, we wouldn’t be connected the way we were. They set America decades ahead of other countries,” McCutchin said. “You have men doing right by their families, and as a result, many of them got sick and died painful deaths.”

The magnitude of the impact of the plant on the United States, Carbondale, the workers, their families, and residents living nearby is why groups like Carbondale Concerned Citizens say they will not be silenced.

“That is something that everyone who is in a position of authority needs to understand. Another thing is, we will not allow other people who have not been affected to dictate this narrative,” McCutchin said. “We matter, and that’s why our fight continues.”

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