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‘Weakened’ Clear Air Ordinance For Heavy Polluters Moves Forward — With No Support From Environmental Groups

The proposal expands the city's role in approving permits to open industrial businesses with minimal community input. "We’re really relying on agencies that have failed ... to be the backstop to industrial polluters coming into more neighborhoods."

William Guerrero, a.k.a. thekidfrompilsen looks on as community members, leaders and activists gathered outside City Hall to call on Mayor Lightfoot to deny the permit to move General Iron to the Southeast Side on the 20th day of the hunger strike on Feb. 23, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — A measure backed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and several aldermen to give the city additional oversight over where industrial polluters can set up shop earned key committee approval Monday, but last-minute changes to the proposal led a co-sponsor and environmental groups to pull their support.

The proposal expands the city’s role in approving permits to open industrial businesses, including large recycling plants, warehouses and other manufacturing facilities that emit air pollution.

The measure was deferred for months because of opposition from aldermen who said it would drive industrial developers away from the city. Finally on Monday, the Zoning Committee approved it 14-4, teeing it up for a vote by the full City Council as early as March 24.

Lightfoot and her administration have faced intense criticism about environmental regulation of heavy industry in certain neighborhoods, particularly the Hilco site in Little Village and Reserve Management Group’s efforts to to transfer equipment and employees from the closed General Iron scrapper site to what’s been dubbed Southside Recycling in East Side.

Southeast Side residents and environmental activists have protested city and state officials who green lit Southside Recycling’s plans, which has prompted a federal lawsuit and investigation into allegations of environmental racism.

Separately, city leaders delayed a decision on a key operating permit for Southside Recycling, which would open alongside four other metal scrappers at the proposed Burley Avenue site and in an area of “environmental justice concern.”

RELATED: City Repeatedly Breaks Promises To South Siders When Approving Polluters And Demolitions

The additional layers to the approval process are meant to reduce air pollution near residential neighborhoods, particularly on the South and West Sides, where air quality is worse than the rest of the city. But critics said the bill doesn’t go far enough and left out the input of environmental community groups.

“What we’ve seen over the last two months is a weakening of an ordinance that, to begin with, was never developed with very meaningful input from most impacted communities,” said Colleen Smith, deputy director of the Illinois Environmental Council. 

“We’re really relying on agencies that have failed in some of these decisions historically … to be the backstop to industrial polluters coming into more neighborhoods without having a really clear, meaningful public process and without having the ability for citizen appeal of permitting decisions.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/ Block Club Chicago
Little Village residents protest the city’s decision to restart Hilco demolition in May 2020.

Industrial developers would be required to submit a traffic study and an air quality impact evaluation that would be reviewed by the city’s Department of Transportation and Department of Public Health.

Developers would also be required to hold at least one community meeting before filing an application with the city.

All sites with “intensive” industrial uses would have to follow the updated approval process. Projects on sites larger than 10 acres, or within 660 feet of certain residential districts, including schools or day cares, would be forced to apply for Planned Development zoning districts, which sends the application through the city’s Plan Commission and City Council for approval.

Any residential building, school, day care, hospital, park, bar or restaurant seeking to open within 660 feet of the large industrial sites would be required to obtain a special use permit from the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals.

The review process could include suggesting traffic controls to limit the routes or hours of operation for heavy trucks in and out of a facility, and mitigation strategies to control harmful pollutants from escaping a site, such as increasing street sweeping, installing screens around entrances or eventually enclosing some sites, officials said.

An earlier version of the ordinance forced industrial developers to seek a special use permit from the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, which has been criticized by aldermen for not listening to their input.

Ald. George Cardenas (12th), a co-sponsor, initially wanted to send the applicants to the zoning board, but — after hearing pushback from aldermen — he said, “We came to the conclusion that it was really best in our hands.”

“We don’t want to kill industry. I don’t think it does that at all,” he said. “What it does is it brings them to the table, and we negotiate what’s best for both ends: constituents and development.”

Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), a co-sponsor of the ordinance, said it isn’t perfect but is “a step in the right direction.”

Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) initially backed the move but changed his mind after a last-minute change to exempt warehouses smaller than 10 acres. He said that provision was “very favorable towards industry at the expense of community engagement and support from environmental justice organizations.”

“This ordinance does take some steps forward, but, to be frank, it’s not enough,” he said.

Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) said that change was made to allay the fears of small manufacturers, like a coffee-grinding business in his ward.

Credit: Alejandro Reyes/YouTube
A drone video showed how the dust cloud spread from the Crawford demolition site and descended onto Little Village homes.

The Illinois Environmental Council also opposed the final version of the ordinance, saying it “keeps procedural barriers that prevent communities from having a meaningful say in the development of their neighborhoods.”

“Instead of developing a comprehensive air quality ordinance that seeks to truly address zoning’s impacts on communities or take into consideration the cumulative effects of industrial sites on air pollution and public health, the mayor’s ordinance falls far short of what our communities deserve,” the group said in a letter.

Environmental groups Respiratory Health Association, the National Resources Defense Council, Center for Neighborhood Technology, The Nature Conservancy and the Chicago Environmental Justice Network signed onto the letter.

“I know there’s going to be a lot more work that we’re going to have to do as a community to really reform the zoning that does occur in the city of Chicago so we don’t continue to have these problems,” Smith said. “We don’t want anyone to think that the ordinance passed today is a solution to that.”

Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) asked the co-sponsors and city officials if they could name any environmental groups that still supported the ordinance. 

After no one spoke up, Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), who chairs the committee, said, “I guess that answers your question.”

“It does. It really does,” La Spata said.

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