Mary Ann Smith (transcript only)

AC=Ann M. Cummings (Interviewer)
JM=James Morahan (Recorder)
MAS=Mary Ann Smith (Interviewee)

AC: Today is Wednesday, April 29, 2009. I am Ann Cummings and James Morahan is here with me from DePaul University. We are interviewing Mary Ann Smith for the Archives of the Edgewater Historical Society. We plan on using the interview in conjunction with an exhibit that will be displayed at the EHS during the month of June 2009, Marking the 100th Anniversary of the 1909 Chicago Plan. Our group is focusing the Edgewater Lakefront political activism. Our goal today is to understand Mary Ann Smith’s background and her particular experience with Operation Lakewatch. We’re conducting this interview at the 48th Ward office located at 5533 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL, 60640. Mary Ann Smith can you please give us your full name?

MAS: Mary Ann Smith

AC: Thank you. Can you describe your experience with environmental movements prior to Operation Lakewatch (OPLW)?

MAS: In the 1970s there was a transition in the ’60s and ’70s from a movement that was generally referred to as the conservation movement or conservation organizations and environmental organizations. During that period of time, college courses began to emerge and material began to emerge which used the word environment and environmentalism and things of that nature rather than conservation, kinds of language. It signaled a time a change of language coincided and sort of signaled a change of attitude about what was happening. It was more of an activist kind of view of the environment rather than simply preservationist. It required a lot more kind of research and work on the separate issues concerning water, air, and land. It also began to connect in a very profound way, public health to environment. What was different about OPLW was that it was a community based effort, not an effort that came out of a conservation organization or environmental organization, at the time. Also at that time immediately preceding OPLW, there had been activities by a fellow known as “The Fox” (she then says in quotes). He was famous for stopping up illegal falls into the Fox River and other places as well as chimneys and smoke stacks and so on and so forth.

AC: You Said in the ’70s?

MAS: That was in the ’70s, correct. And this was a while before Green Peace had been conceived of. But, the combination of the presence of “the Fox” and the hands-on approach that I had experienced working at the Lake Michigan Federation with Lee Botts, who is sometimes referred to as the Godmother of the environmental movement, really joined together a lot of the strands of what was to eventually become the environmental movement. Also at the time, in the Calumet area, there was a high amount of what is called “Midnight dumping” taking place. And in fact, “fly Dumping” was taking place all over the city as the city was being abandoned. It was called “White Flight” at the time. And the neighborhoods were being abandoned, and we experienced it in this neighborhood in a number of ways. Shortly before I became Alderman and Kathy Osterman was Alderman here I was her Chief of Staff. We cleaned up a dump that had been operating for years and years and years illegally on Broadway. It was not an unusual to find all kinds of waste material dumped in alleys in the middle of the night.

One night someone dumped a truck load of asphalt which completely clogged up the sewers and so forth. So there were those kinds of examples kind of floating around and those kinds of experiences where citizens went out in the middle of the night down to the Calumet area to try to confront or photograph the guys dumping illegal materials. It was something called “the Green Line.” You would have a tanker turn on its spigot in a certain area and just drive around until the tanker was empty. So what happened was, I think in 80 or 81, the beaches in this neighborhood were closed for twelve day. The reason they were closed, although we didn’t know at the time was that the sanitary district in Hammond had been disfunctioning. Raw sewage and any number of things just floated on this way. It created profound problems at the public beaches in this part of the city.

But that 12 days of beach closings because there were so few recreation resources here and because every summer day on a beach is a precious, precious thing. Especially to the moms in the neighborhood. I mean these beaches are free. So they are very important to us. So we began to speculate about how did this happen, where is this stuff come from. We began to talk about..I was down in the Indiana Dunes that summer. Sort of together and independently Kathy Osterman & I began to brainstorm about how to attack this problem. We came up independently with different kinds of vehicles. She decided it would be great to ask boaters to keep their eyes open and pilots to keep their eyes open. I had been brainstorming about “the Fox” and his approach to things, and how we might actually do a citizen water sampling project. That’s why Tom Murphy was so critical because he was head of the Chemistry Department at DePaul at the time and Sandy Stein was extremely important also and we, all four of us, lived in the neighborhood within a few blocks of each other. Sandy lived on Ardmore Street at the time. He had been an attorney of enforcement with the US EPA. So it was a perfect combination of fun-loving, kind of raucous. Imaginative, “Hey kids, let’s go put on a show” kind of thing. We just decided to, that we couldn’t do any worse than the agencies out there that had been funded and empowered to do all this stuff. Also when I had worked at the Lake Michigan Federation I’d become aware of over-lapping jurisdictions. Who was actually responsible for what on the Chicago Lakefront. Who was supposed to be doing what. In the first summer of our operation, when we nailed Chicago fest at Navy Pier, the enforcement agencies and regulatory agencies and water quality agencies were all falling over each other, taking samples and, you know, posturing. It was a very interesting situation in which not only did we nail Chicago Fest at Navy Pier for dumping raw sewage and food and grease and all kinds of stuff into the lake but also we managed to provide a living breathing, very public illustration about how uncoordinated the responsibilities were for water quality and for lake front management. Not only on the sanitary district level, which is pretty much county wide, the city level, Jane Burn was Mayor at the time, the state level was unbelievably inept. The region 5 as well. Because here we had right in front of millions of people right in front of the television cameras, because Chicago fest was the big precursor to the Taste of Chicago. All this activity, all this was happening right in front of people’s eyes. And so we just know that if we sampled there, that we were very likely to find a mess. We sent, on advice of our lawyer, letters to all responsible parties ahead of time, the mayors office and whoever, to tell them that it was a citizen water sampling project and we would be out there, taking samples and its just another profound example of just how cavalier government and agencies had become that they would be told, in writing, when and where we would be doing water sampling. They just would go ahead and do whatever they wanted to do. So there literally were gigantic squeegees longer than that (points to a book case about five feet high) that they would use to squeegee everything into the lake off of Navy Pier. There were no, there were very few structures at the time. A lot of Navy Pier was open at the time.

Stuff would be just daily and routinely poured into the sewers which of course where ancient and leaking all over the place. Everyone knew the Porta-Potties were leaking all over the place. It was just absurd to us, as people who love the lake that this was just kind of sanctioned by everybody. So that was a big win. When you ask in there about my memory I have, it was the first press conference. That first year of OPLW because Kathy was working at the States Attorney’s office and really couldn’t be very public with this. Sandy Stein was an attorney with some conflicts of interest. I don’t know what Tom Murphy’s situation was so it pretty much was put to me, I was kind of the writer and communications person in this thing, as well as a strategist. So we sent out a press release and we had a press conference at Rocky’s Shrimp Shop, in front of Rocky’s Shrimp Shop. I was a civilian and a young house wife when I stood there. I remember looking at the video of myself. Thank God they didn’t play me speaking.

AC: Laughs

MAS: But I had a written thing that I read very carefully so I wouldn’t make any mistakes. And I was shaking like this.

[both laugh]

And of course the rule number one is you’re not supposed to be like this [looks down at an imaginary paper] but of course I was like this. But the press loved it. Everybody loved it. Of course it was just a handful of people doing this citizen water sampling project that just blew everybody away. There are two more years that follow this, but you ask in your questions what affect do you think this had. I think it’s a good model as a reminder for people that you can’t rely on agencies or government. They all begin to develop relationships. The phosphates ban in the Great Lakes hasn’t been enforced. We’re finding phosphates in the Great Lakes again and you probably remember the mercury issue with AMICO in Indiana. Where some little water board decided to let AMICO increase its mercury discharges. Indiana EPA didn’t do anything, Region 5 didn’t do anything. It was people locally here, in Chicago, the Park District and so forth, which started to raise Hell. I think something like 100k petition signatures were gathered. So it’s a constant effort and I think citizens have to be hands on. The other very important issue is its very easy for technocrats, whether it’s big oil or a utility, to try to run people ragged with technical jargon and nonsense. Very often elected officials, you’ll see this in public hearings, where elected officials can be confused by this, or baffled by it, or intimidated by it, not to mention the public. Also my experience in working on PCB’s and a number of other things as a civilian is that very often it’s hard to get

[someone sneezes]

MAS: God Bless You!

University people and so forth to come out in public to testify about the actual impact of P.C.B.s and things like that. The University of Illinois, Sam Epstein, is unique among people for his willingness to come out in public and testify at hearings and so forth.

So that this was…Tom was a Chemistry Professor on the Lake Michigan Federation board for years. In fact Tom had done a lot of the original research on the whole PCB issue. Sandy, of course, had been a US EPA enforcement Attorney, but we all had known each other doing things like beach clean-ups and all this crazy stuff in the neighborhood here. So really were just neighbors and parents.

AC: Can you talk about John Berzins a little bit?

MAS: Well, you know from what I remember was he was getting a graduate degree in Chemistry or something. He was paid very little money I think we had our budget the first year was something like 12 hundred dollars. We bought that equipment that Tom Murphy used to take his secure water sampling apparatus. John went around to places along the Lakefront to take water samples. But it depended upon what our focus was. The first year, our focus was on Chicago Fest. The second year, I’m pretty sure that our focus was the harbors and that’s when the Chicago Park District sued us and gagged us. What I had observed, in the harbors, was that all these boats with their toilets were in the harbors, excuse me…There were two things actually: the boats were in the harbors, but the pump-out stations, the number of pump out stations didn’t relate to the number of boats. There should have been far more pump-out stations. Furthermore allot of the pump-out stations were broken. Very shortly into the boating season they’d be broken and they wouldn’t be repaired or maintained. So to us it said take a look at the water quality in the harbors because this cant be good. So we found that the further we got into the boating season the more that it appeared that the harbors were filthy. Also there is something called “flushing action” where if a harbor is badly designed, it can’t flush out.

So it was a combination of storms and really observing and so on & so forth. Finally towards the end of the year, testing. We were testing for fecal chloroform counts. That was when the numbers got so high because the stuff had been sitting in the harbors cooking essentially we felt that we had to warn people that the fecal chloroform counts were so high that coming into contact with the water, because people routinely jump into the harbors to clean their boats or just to fool around. So OPLW did a little advisory and the one thing Sandy Stein told us was don’t put anything in writing up on public property, which of course we immediately did as soon as he left. So we were sued. And as my husband the criminal defense attorney says, everybody wants a freedom of speech case. He said it’s one chance in a lifetime to be able to work on a freedom of speech, First Amendment case that does not involve Nazis. So the legal community was all over us, they just loved this.

Of course, we were very shortly ungaged by the courts. But the other thing was, that by asking boaters to get involved…One of the reasons we wanted to ask boaters and pilots is because we also know that barges and so forth were dumping oil or leaking oil out there. So that was something we didn’t directly nail down but pilots began to call reports into our hotline and we would pass the information on. But one boater, who slept on his boat when the weather was good, in, I think, Burnham harbor, right behind McCormick place observed … he’d wake up in the morning and there would be grease on the boats, grease on the ropes grease on everything. So he observed what was going on and decided to video tape a plum of grease below the water’s surface coming out of the eastern wall of McCormick place. His video tape lead to the prosecution of various individuals involved with the McCormick place. What was happening is waste and kitchen sink waste… the pipes that were supposed to direct that kind of material to an appropriate exit were empting out into the harbor. So we literally had cooking grease and kitchen waste as well and some raw sewage pouring directly into the harbor.

So it was really all kinds of citizens working together: boaters, neighborhood people, beach users, and environmental types. You know, when you said what problems did we encountered … we were very successful our first year obviously and we were very successful our second year. We went to, I think, the Joyce foundation, the Woods Foundation, a couple of these places just to try to get a couple thousand dollars to map out a third year. We were turned away from the foundations. They told us we were too well connected. Who knows what that means, I have no idea what that means. I did not have a job I had not finished my undergraduate yet. Kathy was working on community outreach for the states attorney’s office. Tom was a Professor at DePaul and Sandy was, at that time, in private practice. So there was an assumption that because we were having such a big impact that there was a lot of money involved when I think maybe the total budget might have been 4 thousand for 2 1/2 years. But we were good at what we did. What else did you want to know?

AC: When, why, or how did it end?

MAS: Well we blew up the agencies that we needed to. We embarrassed them, humiliated them, ignited fires under the press and also ignited fires in some of the environmental groups because there was a lot of discussion about policy and this and that and this and that but very little hands on activity at that time. So we really didn’t think we needed to go on. The last thing we wanted to do is create another organization. That’s one of the reasons we operated under the 503C umbrella of Edgewater community council. So everything went through them. There was a little problem in that a couple board members thought we were taking energy away from housing issues and crime issues or that we might be competing for money, but it really didn’t turn out that way.

AC: Are you in contact with any of the original members?

MAS:ALL THE TIME, Kathy’s passed away, Tom Murphy is involved with what’s called “Edgewater’s Beautiful”, he’s retired, Sandy Stein is an attorney downtown I see him at least once a month, and I don’t know where John is. Kathy’s son is a state rep.

AC: That’s right I saw him. How does OPLW influence your decisions now as a leader on environmental issues?

MAS: Well, it’s nice to be able to reference what we did with some detail because it’s again a good model for blowing away the technical run around that you get from some people. It’s also a good model to demonstrate to people that if you have a concern, you can make a difference, regardless of what the technology may be. There is another issue which is, we don’t need, necessarily allot of money or a lot of bureaucracy to accomplish things. And the watch dogs need watching.

AC: What state do you think that Lake Michigan would be in had OPLW never come into being?

MAS: I think… its still somewhat challenging for some citizens to think about tackling water sampling but now there are great lakes research vessels out there under the auspicious of non for profits as well as universities, I don’t know that DePaul is involved with this, so that we have allot more research being done on the Great Lakes. When we began working on this the Great Lakes were so taken for granite. They weren’t taken for granite, necessarily, as a recreation opportunity for fishing boating or beaches. But the life of the great lakes the life in the Great Lakes, the Great Lakes as one of the world’s great assets, was completely and utterly taken for granite. So that in one of my first encounters, for example, with the aquarium when I became alderman I began pushing them why they were spending huge amounts of money to create exhibits involving wildlife from the Pacific Northwest and all these places. Why aren’t we engaging people more effectively in what’s going on in the Great Lakes. And i am still pretty pissed off about that. But its changing somewhat.

AC: That’s good. Bob Remer wanted us to ask you if you would be interested in participating in a panel discussion with other members of OPLW? Most likely around June 13th when they roll out this exhibit, if so I can tell him.

MAS: Sure, why not? I have a couple commitments. Somewhere in there I am going up to Canada to meet with the Great Lakes Conference of Mayors. I’ll be gone for a week there somewhere. I think it’s probably exactly at that time.

AC: I’ll tell him he can contact you directly. I also wanted to bring this; I thought you would get a kick out of it. [Hands the letter to the Chicago Fest to the alderwoman] I think the bottom CC is you, but I’m not sure.

MAS: No, it would have been, well I don’t know.

AC: It was ‘89

MAS: No see she was commissioner so this would have been Miriam Vilene (sp?). No, you’re right that is me. Great.

AC: that copy is yours because I think it’s funny. Tom Murphy gave it to me. It’s really funny, I thought.

MAS: Yes that is me.

AC: Well thank you for meeting with us. That’s in case you wanted to restrict anything. Thank you for meeting with us. I think you answered all of our questions. We really didn’t have to prompt you or anything.

MAS: Well if you have anything else just give me a call.

AC: Thank you so much for meeting with us.

JM: Thank you.

MAS: MY pleasure.

AC: Can we take a picture with you?

MAS: Sure, Dana? Can you take a picture of us? Those are my High School colors actually.

AC: Really?

MAS: Sad… [Interview Ends]