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Solving the problems of toxics risk: An afterword

Illinois Issues

August [?] 1986

Illinois Issues introduction: As we suggested in the preceding articles, everyone agrees that not enough has been done to control toxic pollution in Illinois, that much of what has been done is useless, that much of the money expended was spent regulating the wrong things in the wrong ways. The problem is not merely that the toxics control system that evolved in Illinois and the U.S. since the mid-1970s is underfunded or poorly managed; those are faults common enough in all government programs, and are correctable. More worrisome is the evidence that the system is conceptually ill-designed to cope with toxics—pollution which (in its chronic guises at least) is particularly subtle in its effects and pervasive in its penetration.

This article is one of a five-part series. For more, see "Toxics and risk" on the "Nature & environment" page. 


Little is known, but the hundreds of toxicologists, epidemiologists, field technicians, citizen activists, attorneys, lobbyists, administrators, lawmakers and plant managers who constitute Illinois' toxics risk guardians are learning more every day. They have learned that clay landfill liners are not dependable barriers to organic solvents, that officially proscribed toxic substances comprise only a small part of the toxics universe, that economic incentives can be more efficient in stemming their use and misuse than regulation. But improved means to track more closely the movement of toxics through the real world must be perfected.


Is the problem of toxics just too big to solve? The answer in Illinois would seem to be "no." although it is likely to take longer to solve it than anyone hoped. (It took a decade, after all, to learn which questions to ask.) But which toxics problem do we mean? Like most political problems, environmental problems need to be understood on several levels. At the objective, scientific level, the problem is measurable by the number of clinically proven cases of human illness directly traceable to exposure to specific toxic substances. By this measure, toxics remain a surprisingly limited threat to Illinoisans. The potential risk is substantial, but the risk so far proven is actually small—a fact which may reflect either a modest risk or perhaps merely a modest understanding. There is no unambiguous cause-effect relationship yet proven, for instance, linking disease and chronic low-dose exposures in Illinois or anywhere else. The gravest threats to public health from toxics continue to occur in the workplace or from acute exposures outside the workplace resulting from spills or other accidental releases. Even these deaths and injuries are rather few; gunfire in Chicago is a far graver threat to public health.


This is not to say that the long-range toxic threat as generally perceived by press and public is imagined. The science of toxics is suggestive, if not conclusive, of the danger. Diseases whose causes are unknown may yet be traceable to specific toxic insults, and future epidemics of birth defects, cancers, etc., from exposures taking place today remain a worrisome possibility. Many environmentalists and public health activists thus argue that preventative measures are called for even in the face of uncertainties about risk, that by the time toxics-related disease manifests itself it is too late.


The risk from toxics must also be understood as a problem of public administration. The body of law (and regulations and court decisions pursuant to that law) which has accumulated in the last decade would itself fill a modestly sized dump. Indeed, there are those who believe it should fill a dump. As we have noted, much of that law is contradictory in its ambitions. Some of it commits the states to goals that are unachievable given the constraints of funding—and in some cases unachievable given the constraints of reality. The single-medium bias of pollution control statutes of the 1970s left agencies ill-equipped to think about, much less to react to, the complex ways in which toxics act in the real world. And if toxics diseases require a long latency to take effect, so does the implementation of toxics law: Illinois' Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) has enjoyed full authority to implement the centerpiece Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 only since 1986.


Toxics also have required new expertise and new institutional arrangements. Illinois has moved farther than most states in adjusting to these perplexing bureaucratic realities, but progress is slow. For example, basic disagreements persist between the IEPA and the USEPA to which it is accountable both fiscally and administratively. This serves as a reminder that the lessons of science need only be learned once, while those of politics and public administration need to be learned anew with every new administration.


Toxics also must be understood as a problem of politics. If science knows little, the lay public (including those parts of it that write newspaper stories and pass laws) knows less. A little learning, always a dangerous thing, is in the case of toxics risk often also a frightening thing. Lawmakers tend to sense public anxiety the way dogs are said to be able to smell fear, and policy will probably continue to be directed toward perceived public health risks rather than plausible ones. The General Assembly that endorsed Gov. James R. Thompson's chemical safety initiative, for instance, is the same one that has resolutely refused to ban smoking in public places—a triumph of politics over epidemiology.


What, then, of the future? Inevitably it will continue to resemble the recent past for a while. Scientists will remain frustratingly cautious, bureaucrats frustratingly slow. A comprehensive toxics control program designed along conventional lines would be both costly and intrusive, and possibly politically prohibitive on either grounds. The broad policy choice at the moment thus is between two options. One is to attempt less and be resigned to never doing everything that might be done; the second is to try to do everything and do poorly what is done. Generally speaking, bureaucrats tend toward the first option and environmentalists the second, with much of industry still preferring to do only as much as it is compelled to.


It is still the public that will have to tip the balance in favor of one option or the other. But that public is likely to remain a reluctant student of the issue. As Roger Kasperson of Clark University noted in a 1983 paper about toxics risk, "Limited information is undoubtedly a prerequisite for warding off hypochondria, if not despair."


It should be remembered that complacency feeds on ignorance as eagerly as fear. After a 1985 dioxin scare, the city administrator of Chicago Heights told a reporter that there was no local alarm since residents were used to chemical plants. People can get used to many things; a state cancer survey a few months later confirmed a nonepidemic pattern of excess deaths for three cancers in the heavily industrialized southeast side of Chicago, only a few miles away.


In short, policymakers sniffing the air for some clue from the public about the direction in which to push Illinois' toxics policy are likely to find the wind from that quarter unsteady. A few years ago a western copper smelter was spewing arsenic and faced USEPA sanctions for violating Clean Air Act standards. The issue became identified (unfairly, in the view of many critics) as jobs v. clean air. Asked their opinion, locals said they wanted both. (The plant subsequently closed for what were described as unrelated economic reasons.) Then-director of the USEPA William D. Ruckelshaus later said he saw this as a sign that residents were "attentive to the balance between economic realities and environmental protection." That hope could also be explained as the public's stubborn belief that they can have a clean environment without cost.


Involving the affected public in future regulatory decision-making will continue to be politically essential. Professor Charles Schweighauser of Sangamon State University, who served on two toxics advisory committees for the IEPA, puts it bluntly: "Any public agency that operates without formal mechanisms of public scrutiny in a sustained way will find itself in political trouble." Attempts at such mechanisms in Illinois have been sporadic but encouraging. In recent controversial land-filling cases, the IEPA has held informal meetings with small groups of locals to explain options. As agency director Richard J. Carlson puts it, "When you treat people like adults, it's remarkably effective."


The IEPA's experience was confirmed by members of the "public awareness" committee of the 1983 Hazardous Waste Task Force organized by Atty. Gen. Neil F. Hartigan and Illinois Senate President Philip J. Rock (D-8, Oak Park). In its final report, the committee praised what it called the "statesmanship" of such local groups as LaSalle County's Residents Against a Polluted Environment (RAPE). "We have gone beyond the 'not in our backyard' mentality," RAPE spokesman Jim Valesano told the committee. "We are concerned about everyone's backyard."


One of the reasons agency personnel might wish to take their cases directly to the public is that they can't trust the media to do it for them. In "The politics of risk" we noted the role the press plays in shaping public perceptions of toxics risk. Its tendency toward sensationalism finds ample opportunity in toxics stories. (People are at much graver risk in the often lurid headlines about toxics stories in the Chicago Tribune than they are in the stories that appear beneath them.) Vulnerable to their own errors on such complex stories, the media also pass on the errors of others. In a May report about a leaking landfill near Quincy, one paper repeated without comment residents' complaints that the landfill area often smells "like methane"—which is an odorless gas.


This is not to suggest that there is no risk from that landfill—what residents do smell may be much nastier than methane. It does suggest that people fear most what they know the least about, and most people know very little about toxics. The smell of gasoline from the corner station does not leave most people afraid, yet the vapors thus inhaled (including those of additives such as benzene) are anything but innocuous.


Public perception of risk


The ways in which people perceive environmental risk is crucial to policy-making, since individual perceptions—coalesced into public opinion—establish the context within which regulation must take place. As we noted in "Assessing the risks," formal risk assessment remains only a crude science, but the informal risk assessments that private citizens perform everyday (especially of comparative risks) are seldom very conscious and in fact often are not even rational. Familiarity breeds complacency regarding risks. Evidence suggests that a diet heavy with fast food probably poses risks of cardiovascular disease as dire as any posed by most toxics; people who would not turn down another helping of french fires will (as Janice Perino of the IEPA's Office of Chemical Safety puts it) "go into a panic when you talk about 'dimethyl doorknobs.'" The sense of risk also varies with the nature of its consequences; cancer is talked about in hushed tones, for instance, while heart attacks are the subject of jokes on TV.


Exotic risks with catastrophic consequences loom largest of all, both in the public imagination and on legislative calendars. Coal-fired power plants exact a steeper toll on public health (mainly from air pollution) than do nuclear plants in routine operation. Indeed, nearby residents are often subject to more natural radiation beaming off coal piles than comes from nuclear plants. But nuclear power is the boogie man.


Whether a risk is freely undertaken by the individual or imposed on him is crucial. IEPA director Carlson recalls an incident during a hearing held in 1985 by Gov. Thompson's Chemical Safety Task Force. A woman spoke vigorously of her concern about chemicals entering her town's water supply from factories upstream—all the while holding a lighted cigarette in her hand.


The urgency of a given risk also varies inversely with the immediacy of its consequences. Most people choose a modest but certain benefit today at the cost of a sizable but uncertain risk in the future. (The economists' term for this is "discounting.") Social distance matters as well as temporal distance. People are naturally most selfish for themselves and those close to them, with their concern for others diminishing in intensity as it passes beyond family to neighbors, townspeople or coworkers until people are perceived only abstractly as populations.


These different scales of public and private concern complicate communication between agencies and the public. For instance, an EPA or FDA (Food and Drug Administration) will typically describe the risk from food items thought to be contaminated by a pesticide or unsafe additives in terms of excess cancers over hypothetical lifetimes among aggregate populations of consumers. The individual consumer, however, typically wants to know whether it's safe to eat the bread from the local supermarket—a simpler question to ask, but a much harder one to answer.


Flora Johnson Skelly, a Chicago-based columnist and reporter, recently described the dilemma of toxics researchers. Skelly noted that while the chances of casually contracting acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) are really very remote, government disease specialists talk about what could happen instead of what is likely to happen. However, Skelly writes, "Ordinary people don't hear these expressions of doubt as mere formalities. They think they mean something." The official language of risk is necessarily shaped by scientific scrupulousness and a desire to hedge against liability if the unlikely does occur. Good science, in other words, often means bad public relations.


The public for its part tends to minimize the risks from the familiar as energetically as it exaggerates those from the exotic. As the Illinois Legislative Investigating Commission pointed out in its 1981 study of hazardous wastes, "Most of us would not think of fragrant charcoal smoke from the backyard grill as air pollution, although such smoke is more harmful to our lungs than are the emissions from some modern factory smokestacks."


Worse, most of us would not think so even after being warned of its risks. When the Illinois Pollution Control Board banned leaf burning in the 1970s, there was a public outcry that led to a quick overruling of the decision by the General Assembly. A similar complaint led the legislature to exempt certain small public water systems from the state's mandatory chlorination requirement. Chlorine compounds react with organic compounds in the water to produce substances suspected of being cancer precursors. The evidence of this effect is not conclusive, and the risk of disease in any event is judged quite small compared to the known risk from drinking water contaminated by pathogenic bacteria. Both decisions may be seen as victories of emotion over epidemiology.


For all of the skepticism about the manner and motive of official risk assessments, however, most of the public most of the time is as trusting of official protection as a baby is of its nanny. Rather than being flattered, officials are often uneasy in the face of such faith. Watching a neighbor spray a commercial insecticide in his backyard while his young child splashed in the puddles it made, the IEPA's Perino once imagined her neighbor saying, "It must be safe, right? I bought it in a grocery store." A survey by Citizens for a Better Environment confirmed that Illinois consumers are often oblivious to the risks from compounds capable of causing genetic and neurological injury; one respondent expressed dismayed surprise upon learning that lawn care companies were allowed to use such controversial weed killers as 2,4-D.


Unknowing victims, in each case, but to what extent are consumers responsible for their unknowingness? H ow much responsibility do individual consumers bear for the environmental consequences of a consumer economy? The point has not been much addressed so far in the toxics debate. Even industry agrees that manufacturers who pay more attention to cost than to care should be held liable for the results. ("You're always gonna have bad guys," explained one industry lobbyist.) What, then, about consumers who (as Pollution Control Board member John Marlin pointed out in "The economics of risk") will not pay more for an item that is made cleanly if a cheaper one is available? One would hope (if not expect) that in the future more Illinoisans would agree with Jim Valesano, who told the Hazardous Waste Task Force committee, "As we all use the products, we must be ready to help dispose properly of the waste."


Regulatory tool kit


Regulation will likely remain the focus of debate about toxics policy, but it is clear by now that the state's regulatory kit will eventually be crammed with new legal, technological and economic tools.


A technological fix is possible. High-temperature incineration is the disposal technology of choice for a wide range of toxics; the principal remaining obstacle to its use is its relatively high cost. Certain toxics can be de-activated by chemical treatment (a process much used in Europe), and researchers continue to make promising discoveries of bacteria that eat toxics such as PCBs and the solvent toluene.


The speed at which technological alternatives will be adopted is a function of relative disposal costs, which will continue to be reshaped by regulation. Tougher landfill construction standards in Illinois, for instance, have already led to some process changes, some product substitutions, some recycling and reuse, some increased incineration.


Illinois regulators have so far wielded their economic club circumspectly. Theoretically, fines levied by the state for violations of pollution rules are a form of economic disincentive, but they are often too modest to be much of a deterrent. Similarly, taxes have generally been used in Illinois less to deter misconduct by polluters than to raise revenue. There is a federal precedent for this. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) or Superfund law, passed in 1980, was funded by a tax which fell mainly on big oil and chemical firms. The tax was both politically and fiscally productive, but it fudged the principle that the polluter should pay, since roughly 70 percent of the fund ended up being supplied by only 12 companies.


When it recently drafted a reauthorized version of CERCLA, Congress sought to make the Superfund tax more equitable by making a much wider range of toxics-producing industries (such as metals refining) liable. In the process it made the bill politically problematic; the Reagan administration considered the expanded tax a hidden value-added tax and opposed it on ideological grounds.


Illinois' fee of $6.06 per cubic yard charged to landfillers of hazardous wastes, like fines, functions in part as a disincentive to land disposal. More comprehensive incentives—such as taxing the manufacture of dangerous substances to raise the cost of production to the point of rendering them unprofitable—have not yet been seriously considered. Whatever their theoretical advantages, such taxes pose tricky practical problems. For example, equity demands that the size of such taxes—also known as "hazard fees"—vary with the degree of the hazard posed by the suspect substance. The federal Superfund tax fails this test, since it taxes the manufacture of safe chemicals as well as risky ones. Research is already underway in Illinois on a degree-of-hazard inventory, but the complications are enormous, and it may take years to arrive at lists that are scientifically respectable and economically equitable.


A few thinkers have proposed a simpler approach in which governments pay companies to dispose of toxics safely. If Illinois wanted to encourage high-temperature incineration at approved facilities, for instance, it could simply buy toxics delivered by their owners to such facilities. The payment would make up the cost difference between cheaper landfilling and safer burning, in effect a pro-incineration subsidy. Money for the subsidy might come from a general tax on affected industries. Safe disposal thus would be revenue-neutral for firms complying with the plan, while firms continuing to use nonapproved disposal methods would, by foregoing the subsidy, pay what amounts to a penalty. Such a subsidy would require some careful arithmetic; were it to be set too high, it might actually stimulate the production of waste rather than reduce it.


In a 1984 policy manifesto on toxics, the IEPA itself noted that an unconventional pollution problem like toxics would probably require unconventional (meaning nonregulatory) solutions. One such solution is the expanded use of insurance. Many firms have carried such environmental liability coverage for years, typically in the form of policies protecting chemical companies and commercial waste disposers against claims for injuries resulting both from sudden, accidental exposures and from chronic but less intense exposures. The recent escalation in the size of damage awards, however, and the prospect of hundreds, even thousands of such actions in the future has led the insurance industry to either withdraw environmental insurance or dramatically increase premiums, with predictable results: As of mid-1986, premiums for accident coverage have risen so high that many waste disposers (especially smaller ones) cannot afford to comply with federal requirements that they carry at least $6 million in liability coverage; bigger firms, such as chemical companies, have been forced to consider forming their own insurance pool; contractors who remove asbestos from older buildings reportedly cannot buy coverage at all, so spectacular are the claims (an expected $50 billion against one company alone) being filed against companies making, installing or removing asbestos products. Limits on the liability of dump site owners have been proposed, as have making rules of evidence in injury trials more restrictive, setting caps on damage awards, even setting up a federal environmental liability fund similar to the existing federal flood insurance plan.


Toxics torts


The insurance dilemma cannot be considered separately from the broader issues of toxics injury under civil law. As was noted in "The management of risk," much of current toxics policy was made in neither the laboratories or in legislative chambers but in courtrooms. While it is harder for big industry to buy congressmen the way it used to, it can still buy lawyers, and affected industries are likely to continue their legal challenges to basic toxics control statutes. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 gave citizen-environmentalists the right to sue polluters suspected of violating federal pollution standards; fines against conventional polluters in such cases have reached as high as a million dollars, and lawyers who specialize in them expect even more such toxics actions to be filed under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Governments go to court, too; state and federal EPAs can sue to recover the costs of cleaning up Superfund sites whose owners refuse to do so.


It is toxics torts, however, that have put toxics on the agendas of so many conventions of the bar in recent years. People who believe that they have suffered health damage from exposure to toxics may sue for damages in civil court. U.S. soldiers sprayed with diox-in-contaminated Agent Orange in Vietnam chose this remedy, as did workers who contracted cancers and other lung diseases from manufacturing or installing asbestos products. Citizens of Woburn, Mass., have been pushing a similar suit—potentially the most significant to date—charging two corporations with poisoning town wells and thus causing several cases of childhood leukemia.


The potential awards in such cases are huge. Plaintiffs in the Agent Orange suit settled out of court for $180 million from the seven chemical companies that made the chemical; the $2.5 billion in asbestos-related claims filed against the Manville Corporation forced that firm into bankruptcy. Estimates of the total potential cost to corporations of pollution damage awards have run as high as $100 billion—as much as it would cost to clean up every known hazardous waste site in the U.S.


The tort system is a mechanism like taxes by which the public cost of toxic pollution (otherwise borne by a victimized public in the form of disease or reduced earnings) can be allocated to the responsible private party. The exposure to such financial risks of companies that make, use and dispose of toxic substances gives regulators perhaps their most powerful lever. Liability actions tend to discourage unsafe practices across whole industries, thus accomplishing what regulation and fines achieve slowly if at all.


Toxics are among the so-called public risks, which also include such products as vaccines, food additives and jumbo jets. Harm from such risks, when it occurs, tends to be widely distributed. Cause tends to be remote in time from effect, and the latter is usually imposed on its victims without their knowledge. None of these traits were typical of traditional liability cases. As lawyer-engineer Peter Huber has put it, "The old tort system was quite comfortable with car accidents, but not with such matters as pollution."


The result is that while the courts may be the best available forum to argue cases of suspected toxics injury, they are far from the best one. Until the 1960s, traditional standards of evidence under product liability laws and similar statutes made it virtually impossible to "prove" toxic harm. The long latency period for diseases such as cancer meant that the harm did not manifest itself until after most state statutes' of limitations had expired. Such cases usually produce more smoke than smoking guns. The uncertainty about the etiology of "dump site" diseases, the problems of assigning specific responsibility for dumps closed for years and whose owners are not known, the tenuous assumptions that epidemiologists must make about the nature and extent of exposures that occurred years earlier—all have clouded the search for responsible parties.


New kinds of risks have led to new kinds of liability since the 1960s. It is worth remembering that while CERCLA is widely perceived as a dump cleanup bill, its principal focus is the problem of liability. Under the act, owners, dumpers, and customers of dumps, past and present, are held strictly liable for any release of toxic substances. Such liability is "joint and several," meaning that all who dump or cause to be dumped or profit from dumping bear responsibility for all. (The owners of the A&F Materials site in Greenup, regarded as the worst hazardous waste site in Illinois, had gone bankrupt; federal and state EPAs subsequently sued for and in 1984 were awarded several hundred thousand dollars in costs from the six companies whose wastes had been dumped there.) The act's provisions are retroactive, meaning that dumpers are liable today no matter how long ago the dumping was done. Dumpers are even liable if the dumping was done in full compliance with regulations that pertained at the time.


CERCLA is only part of a trend. Relaxed standards of evidence, class action suits, market-share liability and proportional causation are exotic new ideas whose effect has been to increase the exposure of companies to toxics torts. The Agent Orange case set what many consider to be an especially dubious precedent, one of a credulous jury voting its sympathy instead of the facts. The $180 million out-of-court settlement gave rise to the term "orangemail," which describes a tactic to squeeze good money out of bad science. Critics in and out of the legal community worry that judges and lay juries are unqualified to cope with the enormously complex questions of fact that typify toxics injury cases, leading to verdicts which are not only capricious but expensive. Even those who see the civil courts as the victim's last resort admit that most of the cost goes to attorneys, not the victims; toxics torts have been called an insurance scheme with very expensive middlemen.


It is also unclear whether such awards accomplish broader public purposes. Under traditional liability law, it is assumed that awards of damages to an injured consumer will, by deterring reckless action by the responsible party or parties, benefit all consumers. That isn't always true in the case of public risks. Risk is substantial but limited while benefits are diffuse; how does one balance the physical harm suffered by those involved in the manufacture of herbicides against the massive economic benefits to millions of consumers in lower food prices that result from the use of herbicides?


Some critics find toxics torts not just inequitable but antidemocratic. "When 3 million plaintiffs sue 60 defendants for something that happened 30 years ago . . . the courts are not dealing with a dispute. They are engaged instead in large-scale social engineering," warns Huber. "Courts do well in the retail administration of retrospective justice; only the political branches . . . are qualified to make wholesale and forward-looking public policy."


Proponents of the expanded use of toxics torts as both a compensatory and a regulatory tool reply that even an imperfect system is better than none at all. As we noted in "The economics of risk," the vulnerability to liability is credited with doing more to reform the handling and disposal of toxic materials by Illinois industry than a truckful of EPA rules. Instead of its abandonment, the trend is toward expanded use of the tort system. A faction in Congress has tried for years (most recently during the recent fight over the reauthorized CERCLA) to add a federal "cause-of-action" provision that would expand the opportunities for suit by would-be plaintiffs frustrated by the restrictive rules of the various state courts. Many of these same House members have also proposed that courts be barred from considering plaintiffs' fault in making awards. (This would affect Lake Michigan fishermen who ignored official warnings about tainted fish and later got liver disease, for example.) Anxiety, it has been said, is the-most common dump-site disease of all; one House proposal would have allowed compensation not only for emotional trauma resulting from physical harm, as is now the case, but also for emotional trauma resulting from worrying about physical harm.


Alternative mechanisms to the courts for the compensation of victims of toxic pollution have also been proposed, although their adoption seems less certain. Statutory limits on the size of damage awards have been suggested to curb costs. Handling claims through the workers' compensation system—in effect treating toxics injury like any other industrial risk—is a possibility. Cases of widespread harm, such as asbestos-related disease, might justify the establishment of separate administrative (as opposed to judicial) compensation review agencies.


No matter how compensation is finally administered, costs to industry are likely to be sizable. A firm that buys polluted land or buys a company that has previously polluted the land now buys liability for the pollution in both instances; some mergers have already been delayed and land sales impeded as a result. Nor is industry's liability merely fiscal. In a landmark case, the Cook County state's attorney in 1985 filed murder charges against four executives of a suburban Chicago film recovery plant at which a worker died from cyanide poisoning; Cook County officials have since filed another case—this one charging multiple battery—against a firm that exposed its workers to toxic phosgene gas.


The auto industry model


The way we think about pollution clearly shapes what we do about it. To date, toxics risk has been seen in terms of disease. A more useful model for both policymakers and public, however, may be the automobile industry. The public derives such enormous benefits from its use of the automobile that it tolerates its high social costs in injury, deaths, and public spending. As is true of toxics, the risks from the use of the automobile can be reduced, if not eliminated, not as the result of a single law but from many modest steps taken by many agencies—the state police enforce speeding laws, engineers design safer intersections, manufacturers install brighter warning lights, schools insist on tougher driver training courses. Some of those risks, such as drunk driving, can be reduced with relatively little pain to the general public; others will require either higher costs (for safety equipment, for instance) or regulation (such as the still-controversial seat belt law).


Like auto safety, toxic pollution will remain a problem for the foreseeable future, but it is not likely to remain a crisis. Some Illinoisans will continue to suffer injury and others die—always more than anyone wants—but eventually not so many that everyone else can't tolerate it. Recalling a line from "Where to begin?," we will learn to live with what we can't live without. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

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to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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