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Pilsen, Little Village, Back of the Yards

Environmental Polluters That Violate City Rules Will Face Bigger Fines After Ordinance Approved

The Chicago Department of Public Health will be able to assess higher fines ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 on industrial facilities and demolition contractors who violate air pollution standards.

Fire crews were called to General Iron Industries after an explosion on May 18, 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Large industrial companies and demolition contractors that violate air pollution standards now will be subject to stiffer fines under a new ordinance approved by City Council on Wednesday.

The measure to increase fines on polluters was introduced by Mayor Lori Lightfoot last year following a botched demolition of a smokestack at the old Crawford Coal Plant in Little Village. Now the Chicago Department of Public Health can fine companies up between $5,000 and $50,000 for violations of air quality rules.

Last fall, Lightfoot faced fierce criticism in allowing Hilco Redevelopment Partners and its contractors to implode a smokestack at the old Crawford Coal plant. The failed implosion covered the Little Village neighborhood in dust and increased pressure on city officials to sanction Hilco and implement tighter controls on heavy industry.

The following month Lightfoot faced more pressure from residents and activists after an explosion at General Iron in Lincoln Park.

Lightfoot said Wednesday the ordinance would allow the city to hold companies accountable for “jeopardizing the health of our residents and deterring future environmental violations in our city.”

“Protecting the health of our residents remains our highest priority, especially as we continue to grapple with the challenges of COVID-19,” Lightfoot said in a statement.

The fines would apply to large industrial facilities that have the potential to emit 100 tons of pollutants, which covers about 90 facilities in Chicago; and demolition contractors for commercial buildings over 40 feet tall or a cluster of buildings spanning 150,000 cubic feet.

Smaller businesses and projects would not be affected, Arwady said during the Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy meeting earlier this month.

Companies previously faced $1,000-$5,000 for violations. Under the new ordinance, the fine would increase to $5,000-$10,000 for the first violation and $10,000-$15,000 for a second violation. Subsequent violations would result in fines of $15,000-$20,000.

CDPH Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the department was “committed to advancing and enforcing environmental policies and rules to protect air quality.

“This ordinance provides our inspectors with additional enforcement tools to hold industrial facilities and demolition contractors accountable and ensure they follow the rules,” Arwady said.

Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) said the ordinance would build on city officials efforts to “hold bad actors accountable and restore justice to our communities.”

Ald. George Cardenas (12th) said earlier this month that 2020 was “particularly challenging for residents” in Little Village and Lincoln Park communities, “who endured air pollution violations during a respiratory pandemic.” 

“Currently, polluters are paying low fines for violations, and in some instances they are nothing more than a slap on the wrist,” Cardenas said. “It is incumbent on us to focus on accountability when discussing air pollution.”

Cardenas said there is still a lot to work to do, but the increase in fines would “send a message” that a company that “disrespects our community … will pay a price.”

After the implosion, the city hit Hilco with $68,000 in fines and state Attorney General Kwame Raoul agreed to a $370,000 fine to settle a lawsuit. City Council also approved a new law giving local leaders latitude to strip tax breaks from “bad actor” developers, but it is not retroactive and cannot be used to punish Hilco, which already received $19.7 million in incentives to redevelop the site into a Target distribution center.

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