What Do We Know About the Northwest Incinerator, a Large, Mostly Empty Industrial Site on the West Side?

Join City Bureau reporters as we explore ideas of development, activism and safeguarding community knowledge. We’ll start with what we’ve learned so far

The chimneys are all that remain of the former Northwest Incinerator at 740 N. Kilbourn. (Photo: Martha Bayne)

Our team of four City Bureau reporters — Martha Bayne, LaCreshia Birts, Darien Boyd, and Amber Colon Nunez — is focusing this spring on the site of the former Northwest Incinerator and the neighborhoods surrounding it.

We are intrigued that, despite the great deal of attention focused on the incinerator while it was active between 1971 and 1996, and its proximity to residential neighborhoods, community knowledge about this industrial site on the border of West Humboldt Park and Austin is so fractured. What it was once, what it is now, and what it could be in the future is, to many we spoke with, a source of mystery, confusion, or simply ancient history.

This spring we’re meeting with local groups and other stakeholders to explore not just the site itself, but what it means to shape future development, who gets that access, and how it might be expanded. To start off we’ll share five things we’ve learned so far.

1. The incinerator was a big deal at the time.

Opened in 1971 at 740 N. Kilbourn, the Chicago Northwest Waste-to-Energy Facility, aka the Northwest Incinerator, only operated for 25 years, but was, for a time, the largest incinerator in North America, capable of burning 400,000 tons of garbage a year. It was shut down in 1996, thanks to both pressure from local environmental activists, who responded in force after the incinerator failed Environmental Protection Agency testing in 1993, and the repeal that year of the controversial Retail Rate Law, which had provided a financial incentive to private incinerator operators. With that incentive gone, the cost of upgrading the incinerator to meet Clean Air Act standards proved prohibitive, and the facility was closed by Mayor Richard M. Daley.

2. People lauded how environmentally friendly it would be.

When it opened, during the long tenure of Mayor Richard J. Daley, incineration of solid waste was believed to be an environmentally sound alternative to landfills, and the pollution-mitigating technology of the facility was state of the art for the time. But according to witness reports, the smoke from its chimneys often smelled extremely foul. Says Marie Henderson, longtime owner of Out of the Past Records at 4407 W. Madison, “I didn’t notice when it shut down, I just noticed that the air got better.” According to DePaul soil scientist James Montgomery, who visited the site in 1993, a visible layer of soot coated the ground and windows around the incinerator.

3. Lead contamination levels are extremely high in the neighborhood.

A study by the Center For Neighborhood Technology reports that in 1994 the facility’s smokestacks emitted 17 pounds of lead per hour, and a health screening in Austin at the time found that 1,638 children had elevated levels of lead in their blood. We are still seeking information about lead levels in the soil around the incinerator site, but soil testing in the neighborhood the early ’90s showed levels of lead high above EPA standards of contamination. Whether the lead came from the incinerator or from, say, lead paint chipping off nearby houses, is not known. We do know that lead levels in water fountains at nearby Orr Academy High School tested at 16 percent above EPA action levels last year; water at some area parks has tested as high as 100 percent above action levels.

4. The future of the site is in limbo.

Activists’ hopes for the creation of a comprehensive recycling or composting facility on the site never came to fruition, though for a time the site was used as a sorting facility for the short-lived Blue Bag recycling program. Today the site is owned by the city, and used as a waste transfer station contracted to Marina Cartage. As recently as 2016 proposals were reportedly circulating among West Side business owners for possible mixed-use redevelopment at the site; the status of those plans is to date unknown.

5. It’s sort of become a landmark.

The incinerator building itself was demolished in 2015 (see above video), but its towering twin 250-foot chimneys remain a striking local landmark. Said one area business owner we spoke with, “Those chimneys just say ‘West Side’.”

Intrigued? Get in touch.

What else should we know about the incinerator site? What would you like to know about it?

Share your memories of the Northwest Incinerator, and tell us what questions you want answered about its past, present and future: Text the word NORTHWEST to 312–697–1791. Or, you can leave a comment here or email us at info@citybureau.org.

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