Southwest Side residents reflect on the level of air pollution in Chicago, which disproportionately affect neighborhoods of color.

DOWNTOWN — Residents of Chicago’s newly designated environmental justice neighborhoods are calling on City Council to continue working with neighbors to pass broad environmental protections after the release of a report on the city’s pollution inequities.

A cumulative impact assessment released last month identified nearly 30 percent of the city as “environmental justice neighborhoods,” which have been most impacted by industry and pollution.

The findings will be used to draft a cumulative impact ordinance and inform an “action plan” around short- and long-term land use, zoning, transportation, permitting, environmental enforcement and public health policies.

The report recommends an ordinance that requires a new cumulative impact assessment every three years, starts a fund to pay for community benefits projects in environmental justice neighborhoods and creates an environmental justice advisory body, among other points.

City officials from numerous departments committed to a laundry list of projects under the environmental action plan, including increasing regulations on polluting businesses, expanding community air monitoring efforts and improving community input in decision-making processes.

As the city shifts from studying environmental inequalities to reforming its policies, residents and their lived experiences must continue to “co-govern” alongside alderpeople, attendees said Tuesday at a joint meeting of the environmental protection and health committees.

The cumulative impact study is “a significant accomplishment,” but some people “who fought for that accomplishment still are displeased and dissatisfied” with aspects of its findings and methodology, said Ald. Maria Hadden (49th), chair of the environmental protection committee.

The partnership between neighbors and elected officials will be key to tackling any unresolved issues, Hadden said.

Alderpeople’s willingness to work alongside neighbors is “really promising,” said Courtney Hanson, deputy director of People for Community Recovery and co-chair of the cumulative impact assessment’s communications team.

“Where we are now, we’ve been working towards for a long time, but it really is just the starting point,” Hanson said. “To see the council members acknowledge that and be willing to roll up their sleeves and work with community to make sure that we get this right … was really heartening today.”

Environmental protection committee chair Ald. Maria Hadden (49th, in red) and health committee chair Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd, to Hadden’s immediate right) preside over Tuesday’s joint hearing about the city’s recent cumulative impact assessment at City Hall. Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago

Environmental justice neighborhoods will receive “special consideration” as the city moves forward with its ordinance proposal and action plan, officials said.

But the map’s reliance on census tracts and other limitations risked leaving out some communities in need of attention, particularly those near Southwest Side industrial corridors, meeting attendees said during a public comment period.

For example, some census tracts neighboring the controversial MAT Asphalt plant in McKinley Park are not considered environmental justice communities, though neighbors have filed hundreds of complaints about the pollution and smells emitted by the plant with city and state regulators.

“When we look at the [cumulative impacts] map, large parts of Bridgeport, McKinley Park, Pilsen, Back of the Yards, East Side and West Pullman are not labeled as [environmental justice] neighborhoods,” said Theresa McNamara, chairperson of the Southwest Environmental Alliance.

“Because of this, communities will not be given appropriate protection. Polluters will see this report as a welcome mat, as an invitation to drop in at will.”

Officials are exploring whether communities could designate themselves as environmental justice neighborhoods to receive targeted environmental and health protections, said Kate McMahon, policy director for the Chicago Department of Public Health.

A map of the Chicago EJ Index, which shows the cumulative impact of and vulnerability to environmental pollution across the city. Neighborhoods in blue experience a higher pollution burden than those in yellow or green, while crosshatched areas are designated as environmental justice neighborhoods. Credit: Provided

Neighbors and alderpeople, including Ald. Timmy Knudsen (43rd), also called on the city to more strictly enforce its existing regulations as new laws are developed.

Dropped charges, light fines and a willingness to negotiate tickets with large companies are common themes in the city’s environmental enforcement over the past decade, according to a report released by Neighbors for Environmental Justice earlier this year.

Other attendees called for the study and future legislation to address the environmental impacts of diesel trucks and other idling vehicles and encourage the growth of green energy and green industry in Chicago, among other issues.

City Council will continue meeting with residents and businesses to address anything that’s lacking in the cumulative impact study’s findings before legislation is introduced, said committee chairs Hadden and Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd).

“You are not going to have to fight us to follow up on this and to make sure we get it right,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said. “… [Tuesday’s hearing] is not the end. This is the beginning of the conversation, and we are committed to working with all of you.”

The study was a first step — and refining it is a worthwhile goal — but “the real work” for organizers now is to help draft new policy, said Amalia NietoGomez, executive director of the Alliance of the Southeast.

Neighbors are looking for City Council to pass legislation that limits toxic developments, addresses the health impacts of historical pollution, remediates polluted areas and much more, NietoGomez said.

“You want this to be a strong study, but more important is what comes out of it, which is really strong cumulative impact policy [that] incorporates a lot of different things,” she said.

A panel of community and city experts — including Southside Recycling hunger striker Óscar Sanchez (in hat) and chief sustainability officer Angela Tovar (in white with laptop) — answers questions from Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) about the cumulative impact assessment during Tuesday’s joint environmental protection and health committee meeting. Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago

The cumulative impact assessment was required under the city’s settlement with federal housing officials and Southeast Side environmental activists in May.

The city agreed to complete the assessment and environmental action plan after activists filed a civil rights complaint, leading the feds to find the city’s systematic placement of polluters in Black and Brown neighborhoods was racist.

Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration called the feds’ findings “absurd” and dared housing officials to punish the city before backing off and beginning settlement talks last year.

For more information on the cumulative impact assessment, click here.

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