Church Street Waste Transfer Station, located between Evanston’s 2nd and 5th Wards. Nearby residents have raised concerns about the station’s impacts on safety, health, noise and more. (Seeger Gray/Daily Senior Staffer)
Church Street Waste Transfer Station, located between Evanston’s 2nd and 5th Wards. Nearby residents have raised concerns about the station’s impacts on safety, health, noise and more.

Seeger Gray/Daily Senior Staffer

The business of garbage: The price of profit to residents dealing with the Church Street Waste Transfer Station

February 12, 2023

Day in and day out, trucks carry trash past Church Street Village townhouses and trundle up a long driveway to the Church Street Waste Transfer Station.

For 29 years, Evanston resident Cindy Levitt never paid much attention to the station, which is located between the 2nd and 5th Wards. That changed when she moved into Church Street Village in 2008. 

On her first night, Levitt woke up to quaking vibrations she likened to an earthquake. But she realized the vibrations actually came from her next-door neighbor: the waste transfer station. 

“(When I moved in), I was pretty naive about what was next door,” Levitt said. “There’s the issue of the vibrations. There’s the issue of the noise. There’s the issue of what we’re breathing.”

For more than a decade, residents living near the waste station have raised concerns about safety, health, loud noises and more. The private company Waste Management, one of the largest garbage collection companies in the U.S., owns and operates the station. 

Waste transfer stations are designated areas where trucks discharge their solid waste. The station sorts and compacts the waste, which is then taken by larger vehicles to a final disposal site elsewhere, like a landfill. 

By putting smaller, compacted loads onto larger vehicles, companies reduce hauling costs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

And because the station is a private business, it operates independently from the city, according to Cara Pratt, Evanston’s sustainability and resilience coordinator. 

“The station has no affiliation whatsoever with the city,” Pratt said. 

Video by Katrina Pham

Getting around zoning laws

Illinois state law requires waste transfer stations be located at least 1,000 feet away from the nearest residential area, creating a buffer zone. But that law, which went into effect in the ʼ90s, included a grandfather clause exempting older stations, like the one on Church Street. 

Waste transfer stations are sources of air pollution and present dangers to public health, including excessive noise, smells and increased traffic from trucks, according to the Community & Environmental Defense Services, a national networking group that helps citizens with zoning issues in cases with environmental or land use concerns.

Citizens’ Greener Evanston committee member Janet Alexander Davis, a lifelong Evanston resident, said she’s frustrated by the station’s exemption from newer zoning regulations.

“What I’ve learned over the years is that garbage is big business,” Davis said. “Today, it would even be illegal to (have the station). But yet, people have to live with something (like that).” 

If a company asked to build an industrial property near a residential area now, Pratt said the city’s answer would be no.

Historical activism around the station

The station began as a small, family-owned garbage dump that handled mostly Evanston-generated solid waste. Then in 1984, the Illinois EPA established the site as a waste transfer station. 

Davis said the station originally held strong connections with the community because the business used to employ more people from the neighborhood. 

“It was family-owned, and the people were really nice,” Davis said. “They made good money. It was a business, and we left it alone.” 

Since then, several international companies have managed the station: Onyx Waste Services, which became Veolia Environmental Services in 2006; and Advanced Disposal and WM, which acquired Advanced Disposal in 2020. 

Under WM, Levitt said she doesn’t know anyone the station currently employs. Davis said she doesn’t think these international companies share the same commitment to the community.

“All over the world, they make a ton of money,” Davis said. “I doubt it will ever change — if it will ever move.” 

Lisa Disbrow, WM’s director of government and public affairs for the Illinois-Missouri Valley area, said the station’s staff does not live in Evanston but in nearby communities in an email statement to The Daily.

Davis said activism surrounding the station increased when more white people moved into the 5th Ward near the waste transfer station. 

When she began learning about the transfer station, Levitt said she spoke to locals who questioned her intentions as a white person moving into the neighborhood. Some wanted to keep the station because of its historical ties to the community, Levitt said. 

Connecting to the community helped her understand the historical context, she said.

In about 2011, community group Evanston Neighbors United began picketing outside the station, Davis said. 

“It was a small group of Black and white people who got together,” Davis said. “We went out. We met and talked about getting rid of the station.” 

But legal battles between the station’s then-managing company Veolia and the city made activism efforts difficult, Levitt said. 

Between June and September 2010, the city issued five citations against the station for strong garbage smells, only two of which Veolia had paid by 2012. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, fewer than half of all air pollution citations against Chicago businesses end up getting paid. 

In 2011, Veolia filed a complaint against Evanston, alleging the city enacted illegal fees and conducted unreasonable inspections. 

In more recent years, activism surrounding the station decreased due to these legal disputes, Levitt said.

“We were told we couldn’t block (the waste transfer station) from conducting business or we could be accused of tortious interference, which is recklessly interfering with business operations,” Levitt said. “They pulled out some of their corporate lawyers.” 

Concerns about health risks persist 

In 2019, the city conducted a six-month study to assess the air quality around the waste transfer station. The city partnered with U.S. EPA Region 5 — which serves Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin and 35 Indigenous tribes  —  and hired environmental consulting firm RHP Risk Management to run the study. 

RHP Risk Management looked at 12 pollutants. As a preliminary study, the examination did not reach any conclusions but did note formaldehyde and nitric oxide was of greatest interest for follow-ups. 

The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified formaldehyde as carcinogenic to humans in 2004. Nitric oxide is a respiratory irritant, according to the RHP Risk Management report.

In a 2021 follow-up email to the city, U.S. EPA Region 5 recommended the city focus resources on assuring the implementation of best practices at the station. 

But if the city wanted to evaluate concentrations of formaldehyde, the EPA recommended further sampling, which would cost $300 a sample, Pratt said. 

Since the study, the city has not been able to implement any new policies, Pratt said. 

“(The city doesn’t) have funding for this,” Pratt said. “We don’t have authority to change the practices of the waste transfer station in a tangible way because it’s the state that regulates an entity like that.”

Jo Ann Flores-Deter, who lives in a house behind the station, said the preliminary study wasn’t enough. The state and city need to conduct further investigation, Flores-Deter said, because the station is in a neighborhood — not on the outskirts of town. 

Davis said the city needs to better explain the results of the study to residents and do further monitoring. 

“Unless you have people who really understand that report and know what to do going forward, the report is just there,” Davis said. 

Ald. Bobby Burns (5th) said industrial zones should be more distanced from residential neighborhoods as they are legally required now. That way, the business activity would have a less disruptive effect, he said. 

On a semi-regular basis, Burns meets with community members to find solutions regarding the station, he said. Because of that, Davis said she is hopeful for the future. 

“It’s always better to go together and organize like-minded people with similar concerns and issues,” Burns said. “Then, work collectively with the community to come up with solutions.” 

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @JessicaMa2025 

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