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Lightfoot Settles With Feds, Agrees To Environmental Justice Reform After Civil Rights Complaint

Southeast Siders filed a complaint with federal housing officials in 2020, alleging decades of racist city policies pushed polluters into their communities. The settlement forces the city to address their concerns.

Anthony Tamez-Pochel, co-president of Chi-Nations Youth Council, speaks 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 — The city has agreed to reform its policies with an eye toward environmental justice as part of a settlement with the federal government — after the feds found that the city’s clustering of industrial facilities violated the civil rights of Southeast Siders.

The city, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Southeast Side environmental activists reached a three-year agreement Friday to settle a civil rights investigation that found the city’s systematic placement of polluters in Black and Brown neighborhoods was racist.

Southeast Siders filed a complaint with federal housing officials in 2020, alleging decades of racist city policies pushed polluters into their communities. The complaint was sparked by the city’s agreement to help troubled metal scrapper General Iron move its operations to Southside Recycling in East Side.

The settlement requires the city to create an “environmental action plan” by Sept. 1, outlining how various city departments will reform their policies and practices to “better protect environmental justice neighborhoods.”

City officials and community organizers will work to place more air quality monitors in environmental justice neighborhoods as part of the action plan, according to the settlement. Data from the monitors could be used to develop new policies and improve environmental enforcement, officials said.

The city also agreed to address “the negative impacts of air and noise pollution” along the Calumet River industrial corridor, consider the past compliance histories of large recycling facilities like Sims Metal Management and other “consequential facilities” in permit decisions, and improve transparency around permits for industrial facilities, among many other points.

“Communities like mine that have been targeted and burdened by industry because of our social and economic conditions now have a new roadmap to fight back against environmental racism anywhere in the country,” said Cheryl Johnson, executive director of People for Community Recovery.

“This is a victory for all of us,” Johnson said. 

The Southeast Environmental Task Force, People For Community Recovery and the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke filed the 2020 complaint.

Future funding for initiatives such as fair housing programs and accessibility services were at risk if the city didn’t comply with the federal investigation. The city used $375 million in federal housing block grants in the 2021 budget.

The settlement could be voided if the city ever voluntarily allows Southside Recycling to open.

If a court orders the city to grant Southside Recycling its permit — which remains a possibility, as a court case on the issue is ongoing — the city must meet with the feds and activists to discuss next steps, according to the agreement.

Numerous actions the city must take to uphold its end of the agreement were included in Lightfoot’s executive order on environmental justice, released just two days before reaching the settlement.

The mayor ordered city officials to complete a cumulative impact assessment by Sept. 1 and continue the working group overseeing that assessment. The assessment will identify neighborhoods most impacted by industry and pollution, informing leaders as they draft a cumulative impact ordinance, officials said.

It also directs the city’s chief sustainability officer to hire a dedicated environmental justice coordinator, who will work to improve residents’ participation in and awareness of the city’s zoning, permitting and enforcement decisions.

“By formalizing and expanding upon the City’s efforts to advance environmental justice under Mayor Lightfoot’s leadership, the Executive Order — together with [Friday’s settlement] — ensures that this essential work will continue,” health department spokesperson Andy Buchanan said.

Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson welcomes the executive order “and will build on this progress in my administration,” he said in a statement.

Despite the agreement, the city still disputes that its assistance to Southside Recycling was discriminatory, and nothing in the agreement is “an admission of liability,” health department officials said.

City Hall at first called the feds’ findings “absurd” and dared housing officials to punish the city before backing off and beginning settlement talks last year.

Environmental activists sparred with the Lightfoot administration for years over the Southside Recycling permit.

They filed civil rights complaintssued city officials and held numerous rallies and protests in an effort to block Southside Recycling’s operation. Several residents held a month-long hunger strike against the facility.

Residents have blasted the Lightfoot administration for breaking promises and failing to be transparent on issues of environmental justice, like the Southside Recycling permit decision and the Hilco demolition that covered Little Village in dust.

It’s been “exhausting” pushing city officials to implement environmental justice reforms, but Lightfoot’s executive order is a sign “we’re headed in the right direction,” Gina Ramirez, a Southeast Side resident and environmental activist, said Thursday.

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