A Look at Chicago’s Environmental Justice Battles, Impacts and Solutions

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Though Chicago has recently made historic climate and environmental justice budget investments, the city still has much to do in the way of ensuring equitable public health and environmental protections in our EJ communities.

By: Tonyisha Harris, Chicagoland Conservation Manager & Iyana Simba, City Programs Director

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago City Council recently passed the single largest environmental investment in Chicago’s history – the FY2022 budget. It invests nearly $200 million in climate mitigation and environmental justice projects. From clean energy and decarbonization projects to tree plantings and community climate initiatives, this budget shows Chicago’s dedication to enacting environmental values that residents have demanded for years. While IEC celebrates this historic step forward, even this budget and the city processes that determine environmental justice outcomes remain flawed. Black and Brown communities continue to face emerging environmental justice issues. 

In Chicago, there are parts of the city where due to a combination of historical redlining, current zoning laws and continual disinvestment, pollution is the expectation. Moreover, neighborhoods on the South and West sides often serve as dumping grounds for industry, creating public health hazards that are too often left unchecked due to lack of meaningful policy combined with low enforcement of existing environmental laws. When these industries are left unchecked, we see the severe consequences such as the city-approved, botched Hilco implosion which spewed a large plume of dust containing dirt, asbestos, and other particulate matter into Little Village, a neighborhood with degraded air quality and disproportionate asthma rates, all during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, last May. Now, despite the objection of many within the community, the same site is slated to become a warehouse for Target which will mean subjecting the neighborhood to high volumes of heavy diesel truck traffic and the ensuing exhaust. 

In February 2021, IEC published a snapshot of environmental justice issues in Chicago. Again, while the 2022 budget invests in environmental justice projects, the city has not resolved the existing and emerging issues. The Hilco redevelopment illustrates the need to tie increased enforcement and equitable planning policy to the climate investments in this budget. Environmental racism is not a new problem for the City of Chicago, but that said there are quite a few ongoing issues to follow. 

Here’s an updated look at some of the struggles underway and opportunities for you to support our incredible community partners on the front lines.

Land Use Battles
Southeast siders, allies and environmental advocates are outraged about the Chicago Department of Public Health’s (CDPH) process for deciding on whether to issue the scrap-metal recycler Southside Recycling, formally known as General Iron, a permit to relocate from the affluent community of Lincoln Park to the 10th ward, a predominantly Black and Brown environmental justice community. After a 30-day hunger strike from southeast side neighbors, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) intervened and mandated an Environmental Justice Analysis (EJA) or Health Impact Assessment (HIA) be conducted on the impact of General Iron’s permit request. Upon completion of the HIA in January 2022, CDPH Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady is expected to make a decision on whether to deny or issue the permit. 

Southeast siders are demanding that the city deny the permit. Their opposition has generated a lot of media attention, prompting a range of responses from local elected officials. Recently, 10th Ward Alderperson Sue Sadlowski Garza and Mayor Lightfoot were even caught privately berating the residents. IEC and Sierra Club Illinois issued a joint press release admonishing the insulting language and standing in solidarity with Southeast side residents. 

Unfortunately, General Iron is not the only bad actor on the Southeast side. Invert is a subterranean mining company heavily promoting “workforce development” on the Southeast side. Unlike General Iron, Invert has been deeply involved in the community and has gained traction in persuading community members to support a subterranean mining operation. However, the fact is, this will lead to environmental degradation, pollution and further exacerbate illnesses such as asthma in an already overburdened community. Environmental justice advocates are fighting Invert and working diligently to educate residents about the public health and environmental harm they will endure should this project be greenlit.

Moving out west, we get to MAT Asphalt, a $10 million asphalt production plant located in McKinley Park that produces an odor as foul as its emissions. This plant is located near elementary schools, residences, and parks – impacting the health and environment of McKinley Park community members. According to the CDPH, 130 complaints have been filed since it opened with little public notice and without public feedback. Despite the 12th ward neighborhood being represented by Chicago City Council’s own chair of the Environmental Committee, environmental racism in McKinley Park still persists. Thanks to grassroots air monitoring led by the community, we can demonstrate that McKinley is now home to some of the most polluted air in the city.

Heading a few blocks north, we get to the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods on the Lower Westside. These predominantly Latinx neighborhoods have a history of industrialization and environmental justice issues, with the latter hosting the dirtiest air in the city. Along with the Hilco redevelopment mentioned above, the Southwest side shares similar zoning and land use struggles with the 10th and 12th wards, the most recent of which being the planned move of Sims Recycling facility, another metal shredder with a long list of environmental violations into the already environmentally overburdened Southwest side.

Taken together, these current battles demonstrate a clear need for comprehensive permitting reform at the state level. Last year, IEC worked with the organizations making up the Chicago Environmental Justice Network to begin building support for the Environmental Justice Permitting Act, which would do just that. We initiated many productive conversations and found support among the Governor’s Office and legislators representing Chicago’s environmental justice communities and others throughout the state. We are working with our partners to pass this legislation in 2022. To do that, we’ll need the support of Illinoisans from every corner of the state. Stay in touch with us to learn more about how you can support the Environmental Justice Permitting Act this year.

Water Access Issues
Access to safe, clean, affordable water and sanitation is essential, especially in a pandemic where sanitization measures like washing hands, cleaning surfaces and keeping basements free of sewer back-ups are necessary to keep safe. Unfortunately, water access is not spread equitably across the city. Both increasing water rates and failing water infrastructure threaten Chicagoans’ drinking water, especially in low-income Black and Brown communities.

Over the last two decades, water has become increasingly unaffordable for residents, in fact, an investigation by WBEZ and American Public Media found the Chicago Department of Water Management issued nearly 150,000 water shutoff notices between 2007 and April 2018, 40% of which were issued in five of the city’s poorest zip codes on the South and West sides. While there has been a moratorium on water shut-offs since 2019, it is unclear how many homes have been reconnected since then even in the midst of the pandemic.

At the same time, there are roughly 392,000 lead services lines sprawled across the city. While lead pipes are found virtually across all parts of the city and throughout Illinois, residents in environmental justice communities face cumulative lead exposure through various sources (i.e. drinking water, floodwater, paint, nearby industrial pollution in air or soil). IEC was instrumental in passing a historic, statewide lead service line replacement bill in 2021 that will eventually eliminate every lead line in the state, but the city of Chicago has a great deal of work to do to reach an adequate rate of replacement. In September, the city announced its Equity and Homeowner Lead Service Line Replacement programs; however, to date only 20 lead pipes have been replaced so far. In short, the city must accelerate investments in protecting our water from the source to tap and ensure equitable access to clean water and sanitation, which will help prevent future costs related to the health and economic consequences of failing to provide these basic necessities. 


Community-driven decision-making
One of the largest grievances community members have with the city is the lack of decision-making authority residents have about developments within their own community. Oftentimes, facilities are located in environmental justice communities and residents are given little to no warning or opportunities for engagement. As a result, communities have little trust in elected officials and city agencies. Environmental justice communities are often left scrambling to mobilize in response to toxic development or harmful decisions because of a faulty city engagement process. 

A co-decision-making process between the city and residents is vital to establishing trust and making decisions beneficial to the community and environment. The Environmental Justice Permitting Act (HB4093/SB2906) asks for Illinois to give community members standing to challenge permitting decisions made by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA). It also requests the ability for communities to weigh in on large air permits. This act, guidance from environmental justice advocates and city officials could result in a decision-making process that empowers and encourages civic engagement from residents while restoring trust with the city. 

Chicago Zoning Reform
Chicago’s Industrial Corridor is a haven for industries that are often located a few miles from residential communities. The pollution degrades the environment and creates severe public health problems that impact generations of families. Rezoning the Industrial Corridor to limit industrial expansions and promote green space development would protect the surrounding environment and communities while remediating the damage caused by decades of pollution. Rezoning to encourage green space would provide clean air and water for people and wildlife, opportunities for outdoor recreation and increase the economic value and new activity in the neighborhood. 

Transition from Water Assistance to Water Affordability
Since 2020, the city has offered the Utility Billing Relief Program to those who cannot afford their water. The program offers enrollees a 50% discount on water and sewer charges, no late payment penalties and debt forgiveness after successfully completing one year of payments in the program. Separately, at the same time, the temporary, national Low Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP) also provides water bill assistance to low-income households and offers water reconnection for those households that have been disconnected. Together, they both provide Chicagoans reliable access to water; however, it must be noted that water assistance does not equal water affordability. Chicago’s water rates have skyrocketed 300% over a decade while incomes have not kept pace meaning even with a discount, some Chicagoans still cannot afford their water bill. Additionally, while assistance helps lower water bills, it is generally temporary. In order to provide affordable, clean water in the long term, the city of Chicago must consider how it sets water rates. Moreover, the city should consider an equitable water rate structure, one that charges major users such as industry and commercial users higher water rates than individual households.

Department of Environment
It has now been a decade since the Department of Environment was disbanded under the Rahm Emanuel administration. Since then, enforcement and environmental programs have been spread across multiple departments including Planning & Development, Public Health and the Mayor’s Office. At the same time, the city has underfunded projects and programs that invest in environmental protection. In short, Chicago still needs to re-establish the Department of Environment to carry out these efforts. Without coordinated oversight and inter-agency collaboration, Chicago cannot prioritize and effectuate equitable, comprehensive solutions to address environmental injustices and climate change. Fortunately, Chicago’s 2022 budget does include money for a consultant to examine the cost of re-establishing the Department. 

Supporting our Partners in the Struggle
At IEC, we have leaned on our community partners for quite some time to learn about the environmental priorities that actual communities in Illinois want to see pursued. These issues are no exception. That said, one of the best ways that you can support our partners in each of these struggles would be to begin by tuning into the community. Please find a list of a few of our EJ partners below. Follow their social media for the most up-to-date news on their campaigns, and consider supporting their work however you are able.

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