Chicago's Chocolate War

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Few staffers at the Chicago office of the Environmental Protection Agency should be expecting chocolate and flowers this Valentine's Day. Ever since the agency cited the Blommer Chocolate Company for alleged clean air violations late last year, Chicagoans have been feeling pretty sour.

The 67-year-old factory on the city's west side, which is responsible for the (usually) tantalizing aroma of chocolate that wafts over Chicago, is a beloved local institution. So when the EPA responded to an anonymous complaint by telling the factory to eliminate the smell, it provoked a storm of protest from residents of the Windy City. The fact that six coal-fired power plants in the area have racked up more than 7,600 uncited violations since 1999 only further fueled their outrage.

Even officals at the EPA "let out an audible groan" when the original complaint came across their desks, as Tom Skinner, EPA Regional Administrator, recalls. Skinner says he knew it would be all too easy for the EPA's action to be portrayed as big, bad government agency "goes after warm, cuddly chocolate factory."

While admitting that he himself appreciates the chocolate smell as he walks to and from the train each day, Skinner says people should appreciate the fact that the EPA was responsive to a local complaint and acted quickly to bring the company's attention to what could be a health risk to children, the elderly and people with heart and lung diseases.

Theresa Raycroft isn't buying it. Her apartment has a bird's-eye view of Blommer's, where walk-ins can sample free chocolate. A neighbor for nearly 20 years, Raycroft says she's puzzled why anyone would complain about a little cocoa dust in one of the last heavily industrialized sections of downtown, where trucks, traffic, construction and noise are much more offensive.

"If you're going to complain about the environment, you're not going to start with chocolate," she says. Of course, not everyone finds the sweet smell so enticing. Laura Jacobson, 22, who works about a mile east of the factory, says the chocolate odor can be foul in summer, when temperatures rise and "it mixes with the river smell. Ugh. It's nauseating," she groans.

Lost amidst all the uproar is the fact that the Blommer family, which still owns and operates the factory, agreed with the EPA that its factory "opacity," or the amount of light blocked by emissions, was too high. They turned on a newly installed filter system in January, although they have yet to receive a final OK from the EPA. Rick Blommer has tried to stay out of the fray. "I'm just going to make chocolate," he says. Skinner can only wish that everyone was as even-keeled about the controversy. As he puts it, "we do feel a bit like the Grinch."

With reporting by Elizabeth Coady