MCKINLEY PARK — When an asphalt plant moved in across from McKinley Park’s namesake park in 2018, neighbors — and even city officials — said they had no idea it was coming, let alone that it would be pursuing a pollution permit.
Now, a new state bill aims to ensure state elected officials have plenty of advanced notice when a business or plant applies for a pollution permit.
On March 28, the Illinois State Senate passed Senate Bill 1847, which would require the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to notify state elected officials of new developments that would require a pollution permit. Sponsored by Assistant Majority Leader Tony Munoz (D-Chicago), the bill arose from a controversy in the state senator’s own neighborhood, when the IEPA issued MAT Asphalt a 1-year construction permit to operate in a residential area of McKinley Park without giving notice to neighbors or local and state officials.
The new law would prevent industrial polluters from moving into a neighborhood by requiring them to notify the public during the permit process.
“The oversight on public notification that occurred under the previous administration showed complete disregard to the thousands of McKinley Park area residents,” Munoz said in a statement. “No one should find out about a potentially hazardous industrial development occurring in their own backyard once construction has begun.”
But according to the IEPA’s current Environmental Justice policy, McKinley Park’s state representatives should have been notified when MAT Asphalt initially filed its pollution permit application in 2017.
The state’s Environmental Justice policy says that an area of environmental justice concern is “a census block group or areas within one mile of a census block group with income below poverty and/or minority population greater than twice the statewide average.” Those neighborhoods are granted special public engagement protections to offset demographic factors that put them at a higher risk of environmental health impacts.
For those communities, the state’s Environmental Justice Officer Chris Pressnall is tasked with coordinating public participation for proposed developments that would have a significant environmental impact in the community, including permit applications like the one required for MAT Asphalt to operate. The typical outreach process would include public notice of new industrial facilities slated to move into the neighborhood, hearings to solicit feedback and receive potential complaints on the project, and letters mailed to city council member and state representatives.
McKinley Park is considered a working class neighborhood, with about 23.3 percent of residents living below the poverty line, according to American Community Survey data collected by the Census Bureau. About 54 percent of residents are Hispanic, 21 percent Asian and 7 percent African-American, meaning that McKinley Park exceeds the threshold for both race and socio-economic status for being considered an environmental justice community entitled to a higher standard of public participation.
But McKinley Park is far from the only neighborhood in the city qualified for this designation. EPA data shows that the vast majority of Chicago qualifies for environmental justice area protections, save only for the Loop and a couple neighborhoods on the North Side.
Click here to see a map of qualifying areas.
Even though most of the city can be classified as environmental justice areas, the state’s environmental justice process is not legal requirement — it’s a policy, not a law.
Not all industrial developments in environmental justice areas cause the IEPA to send a letter, and even when the agency fails to engage residents in an outreach process, a permit can still be issued. McKinley Park is hardly an outlier in being overlooked by the IEPA’s public participation guidelines. The Chicago Tribune reported that between 2015 and 2018, nearly 2,000 permit applications were filed in Illinois’ environmental justice areas, but the EJ office only sent out notification letters in 44 percent of those cases.
Despite the public participation policy for places like McKinley Park, IEPA documents show they didn’t attempt to send the required EJ letter to local elected officials until October 12th 2017 — only days before the 90-day review period for the permit was set close on Oct. 16. The EJ office then issued a waiver to extend the decision deadline past 90 days to make space for the public feedback, before issuing the permit on Oct. 26, 10 business days after allegedly sending the notice.
“Ideally, we want a minimum of one or two weeks from time EJ notification is sent to permit issuance in order for us to gage [sic] the level of public interest in a proposed IEPA action,” said EJ Officer Chris Pressnall in an internal email on Oct. 12, 2017, after finding that the EJ letter had not yet been sent. “If the permit must proceed without delay, so be it, but obviously not an ideal situation.”
According to the IEPA, the letter was sent via standard rather than certified mail, so there are no documents or records showing that the letter was actually ever sent. Local representatives addressed in the letter, including McKinley Park Ald. George Cardenas (12th Ward), Illinois Sen. Tony Munoz and State Rep. Theresa Mah (D-2nd), have said they can’t confirm that they ever received the letter.
“Going back to I guess two years ago, we were just as surprised as everyone else when we saw the huge silos in that plant development in that district,” said Liliana Escarpita, a spokeswoman for Ald. Cardenas. “Once we got our hands on that letter, we realized that our name wasn’t even on it.”
This lack of community engagement snowballed into public outcry among McKinley Park residents, backlash from elected officials, and the formation of Neighbors for Environmental Justice, a community organization working to stop MAT asphalt plant from operating at its current location. Residents living nearby filed a laundry list of complaints to the city and the state, citing noxious fumes, toxic dust pollution, and improper truck traffic along residential roads.
MAT Asphalt’s plant manager Joe Haughey says he is glad that the new bill would create more space for public engagement.
“We have always been open about our operation. We have invited community members in for tours, we respond to all inquiries, and we welcome the additional transparency the bill may put into place,” he said.
Even though the state’s environmental justice policy already enables the type of outreach that Munoz’s bill would require, the new bill would be an amendment to the Illinois Environmental Protection Act, making it a legal directive to the IEPA rather than simply an internal policy.
It also provides avenues for increased accountability by requiring that when the IEPA sends a public notice for pollution permit applications, they send them with certified or registered mail service that can be tracked. This would assure that all those critical EJ letters that are sent are certifiably received by the public officials they are addressed to. In addition to mailing those notices, the law would require them to be posted publicly on the IEPA website, searchable by zip code.
As for the shortcomings in enforcing the current public notice policy such as in the case of MAT Asphalt, Sen. Munoz says it has a lot to do with the priorities of the officials running the EPA.
“The staffing and resource deficiencies experienced by the IEPA are not a result of policy shortcomings. The previous administration undervalued the state’s environmental protection efforts and shortchanged so much of state government that repair of the IEPA is clearly necessary,” a spokeswoman for the senator said.
IEPA officials worked with Munoz on the language of the bill, and say that there are more policy enhancements to come across 2019.
“The agency has been working to implement a number of improvements including the development of an Environmental Justice listserv, electronic notification of environmental justice notices, and updating the Agency’s Environmental Justice Public Participation Policy,” said IEPA spokeswoman Kim Biggs. “There would be significant changes to our existing process if the bill becomes law.”
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