MCKINLEY PARK — As Chicagoans experienced some of the worst air quality in the world from Canadian wildfire smoke, environmental activists encouraged Southwest Side neighbors during a meeting Tuesday to work with them to address another concern: the proposed expansion of the Stevenson Expressway.
Rep. Theresa Mah held the Tuesday evening meeting at the McKinley Park Fieldhouse, 2210 W. Pershing Road, to update neighbors on a bill that would add more lanes to the I-55 expressway.
The bill was authorized by state lawmakers at the end of the May session, allowing the Illinois Department of Transportation to pursue a public-private partnership to complete the expansion of I-55, according to the Tribune. The expressway runs through part of the city’s Southwest Side and on toward Joliet.
Adolfo Catrejon, 27, who lives in West Lawn, said his biggest concern with adding extra lanes would be the pollution brought by more cars driving on the expressway.
“The fact that we’re having a town hall meeting on the worst polluted day that we’ve had so far, it’s kind of a joke,” Catrejon said. “We can’t look each other in the eye right now and be serious that we’re going to add more pollution.”
As the meeting progressed, some attendees pointed to other ongoing environmental injustices neighbors face.
Alfredo Romo, a member of the Neighbors for Environmental Justice organization, said he encountered environmental racism in Little Village “firsthand” when he worked for a chemical company and developed cancer.
Romo reminded neighbors of two other environmental issues that impacted the health of the community: the dust cloud that enveloped Little Village after a botched coal smokestack demolition and emissions from the controversial MAT Asphalt plant in McKinley Park.
“This is why it’s important for us to have an environmental presence. … We’re the one’s paying the price,” Romo said.
Neighbors for Environmental Justice was one of several local environmental and community groups that attended the meeting. Others included the Southwest Environmental Alliance, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, Sierra Club and the McKinley Park Developmental Council.
Bringing these organizations into one room is “a way to facilitate communication between folks who care about related issues,” Mah said.
“I see their power and I want to enhance their power,” Mah said.
As neighbors have started to organize, Ald. Julia Ramirez (12th) said in a statement, “the environmental justice agenda is growing.”
One neighbor suggested that environmental activists and neighbors come together to form a committee to prevent the I-55 expansion bill from moving forward, which drew some applause.
Theresa McNamara, chair of the Southwest Environmental Alliance, told neighbors to “run up to some of the people that are here that are working in the community to make it a better place for all of us.”
“We need you all because that’s the only way things are going to stop,” she said.
A handful of the 45 or so neighbors who attended the meeting stayed behind after it ended to talk with representatives from the environmental groups.
Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, which seeks to advance environmental state policies, said she would support an “on-the-ground” committee of neighbors and activists to keep an eye on the I-55 expansion bill.
“We should keep people vigilant and active,” Walling said.
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