Chicago, IL

Chicago Mayor Unveils City Reforms to Combat Environmental Racism Addressing Pollution Burden

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

A comprehensive plan created for Chicago to address impact of inequities in environmental justice neighborhoods

Mayor Brandon Johnson has unveiled a comprehensive set of city reforms aimed at tackling the pressing issue of environmental racism in Chicago. This initiative marks a critical step forward in addressing the long-standing environmental disparities that have disproportionately affected marginalized Black and Latino communities.

In 2020, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) concluded a year-and-a-half-long investigation in Chicago triggered by complaints from Southeast Side community groups. These complaints centered on the proposed relocation of the General Iron scrap metal business from Lincoln Park to the East Side, which was perceived by area residents to be discriminatory.

The investigators concurred that moving this business, which was considered a nuisance in the affluent, predominantly white neighborhood, to a Latino community surrounded by Black residential areas was a violation of civil rights. Following the investigation HUD accused Chicago of routinely locating industrial polluters in Black and Latino neighborhoods constituting environmental racism.

Environmental racism refers to the systemic practice of placing toxic waste sites, landfills, industrial facilities, and other environmental hazards disproportionately in communities inhabited by people of color. This practice leads to adverse health effects, reduced property values, and diminished overall quality of life for residents in these areas. It is a stark example of how structural racism continues to impact marginalized communities.

Environmental racism goes hand in hand with housing descrimination through redlining. Redlining involved banks using a red line to mark neighborhoods as "risky" and thus unsuitable for loans. This practice results in Black communities being denied the opportunity to own property and accumulate wealth over generations because they were compelled to remain in these risky neighborhoods, thereby reinforcing segregation.

In a letter sent to former Mayor Lightfoot, HUD insisted that the city of Chicago address the illegal planning, land-use and zoning policies to prevent further environmental discrimination from continuing to plague these neighborhoods of color.

According to the letter, “The city ignored key substantive concerns throughout the process,” the letter said. “Disparities in environmental burdens and their health effects were well known by the city and raised by residents and experts, yet the city took significant actions towards the relocation without considering how the relocation would exacerbate those disparities.”

The letter went on to say, “These actions continued a broader policy of shifting polluting activities from white neighborhoods to Black and Hispanic neighborhoods despite the latter already experiencing a disproportionate burden of environmental harms.”

The city faced lose hundreds of millions of dollars in federal housing funds if the administration refused to follow through with the HUD demands. However, former Mayor Lightfoot did not agree with the evaluation, stating, “Any allegations that we have done something to compromise the health and safety of our Black and Brown communities are absolutely absurd. We will demonstrate that and prove [HUD] wrong.”

Hud replied that Lightfoot could sign the compliance agreement voluntarily or HUD could refer the case to the Justice Department who would take action.

The former mayor took action. Allison Arwady, former Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Health evaluated the effects of proposed construction of Southside Recycling, a car shredding facility.

In her report, Alwady stated that the Chicago Department of Public Health “finds that the facility proposes to undertake an inherently dangerous activity in a vulnerable community area, and the applicant failed to provide sufficient evidence that the facility can comply and stay in compliance with the terms and conditions of a permit, [municipal] code, or the rules as necessary to fully protect the residents of the Southeast Side,”

Lightfoot denied the requested permit for the scrap-metal operator to set up shop on the Southeast Side at East 116th Street along the Calumet River. However, the business owner continues countered that Illinois Governor JB Pritzker had already granted permission to build the plant and began to seek legal action to challenge Lighfoot's decision.

Following a comprehensive citywide examination carried out in 2022 of the combined effects of pollution and other societal pressures, Chicago expanded its definition of what it called "Environmental Justice Communities." These communities are dispproportionately affected by pollution fromindustry and heavy traffic on busy road.

Added to previously defined Environmental Justice Communities including Little Village, McKinley Park, Pilsen, East Side and South Deering are Austin, East Garfield Park, West Garfield Park, Englewood, Humboldt Park, Roseland, and other neighborhoods on the South and West sides of Chicago.

Johnsons efforts follows on the initiative of former Mayor Lightfoot and the agreement she signed with HUD. Johnson called the designation of Environmental Justice Communites provides a "roadmap" to follow to combat discriminatory planning and zoning practices.

"In the greatest city in the world, no neighborhood should have to suffer the burdens of pollution more so than any other neighborhood. In fact, the time to act on environmental justice is now. This comprehensive study of the distribution of environmental burdens in our city is the first step of becoming a leader in environmental justice and protecting all of our communities," Johnson stated.

Johnson referred to his pledge as the first phase of what is expected to be a prolonged and contentious effort to rectify the consequences of long-standing government practices like redlining that discriminated in real estate. Furthermore, this initiative was introduced in order to tackle long time city policies that incentivized heavy industry to move from predominantly white neighborhoods to other parts of Chicago. These areas of the city have been disproportionately affected by pollution, poverty, and health problems.

Key components of the reforms include increasing and widening community outreach, stepping up enforcement of pollution complaints, and utilizing newly available federal funds to install air quality monitors throughout the city.

Johnson's proposal also includes a transparency aspect,publicly accessible data on numerous environnmental factors, such as community pollution levels, rates of chornic illness in children and a map of where "dirty industry" has historically been located.

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