Letter From Rockford: How the Little Guys Won

Editors' note: Our hometown of Rockford, Illinois, is celebrated by pollsters as one of the most demographically average cities in the United States. Not surprisingly, then, our political, economic, and cultural trials reflect those of the country at large. In "Letter From Rockford," a recurring column, Rockford writers will examine local issues that have national significance.

Rockford has a rich industrial heritage of furniture makers, tool and die manufacturers, defense contractors, and metal fastener producers. Along with this heritage comes the gift that keeps on giving—pollution. After making their rounds at local factories, waste haulers used to dump a variety of solvents, oils, and paint wastes on the sandy soil of former farms (where they had a clear path down to the city's aquifers), or bury barrels of waste in city dumps or on their own properties. The old petroleum and chemical holding tanks of these industries still exist, of course, as do the underground tanks of former gas stations. At the time (the 1940's, 50's, and early 60's), the dumping of industrial wastes and the burying of barrels were legal.

Many of the polluting industries were located in southeast Rockford. In the 1960's, 70's, and 80's, the rates of cancer and other illnesses began to rise in southeast Rockford, where homes were not connected to city water but relied on wells. This rise...

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