Rich or poor, ev­ery Chicagoan de­serves to live in an en­vi­ron­men­tally safe neigh­bor­hood

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION -

The bat­tle for en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice — the idea that poorer com­mu­ni­ties should not bear an un­fair share of pol­lu­tion — stretches back decades, but a Lit­tle League field in Hegewisch shows how much re­mains to be done.

As the Sun-Times’ Brett Chase re­ported this week, U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency of­fi­cials are re­plac­ing soil con­tam­i­nated by lead and arsenic at the Hegewisch Lit­tle League Field, at 127th Street and Caron­do­let Av­enue, with clean dirt. Kids were play­ing on the decades-old field, now called a “sub­stan­tial threat to the pub­lic health,” as re­cently as last sum­mer.

Why are neigh­bor­hoods with lim­ited re­sources still bat­tling pol­lu­tion more than three decades af­ter the en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice move­ment for­mally was launched? It has been 24 years since for­mer Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der de­signed to en­sure that the en­vi­ron­ment and health of mi­nor­ity and low-in­come pop­u­la­tions are safe­guarded “with the goal of achiev­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion for all com­mu­ni­ties.”

Pol­lu­tion and COVID-19

In Chicago, part of the prob­lem is that City Hall hasn’t done enough to make sure all city de­part­ments work to­gether to pre­vent en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion and health threats in eco­nom­i­cally chal­lenged neigh­bor­hoods, says Kim­berly Wasser­man, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Lit­tle Vil­lage En­vi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice Or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Lit­tle Vil­lage has the sec­ond­worst air qual­ity in the state, yet the city has ap­proved the con­struc­tion of a ware­house that will bring trucks spew­ing air­borne par­tic­u­late mat­ter through the neigh­bor­hood. A re­cent Har­vard Univer­sity study found that high lev­els of par­tic­u­late mat­ter are as­so­ci­ated with a 15% higher mor­tal­ity rate among peo­ple who con­tract COVID-19, and Lit­tle Vil­lage’s ZIP code al­ready is among the worst hit by the coro­n­avirus.

“There needs to be a sys­temic look at the city’s poli­cies across the board,” Wasser­man told us on Wed­nes­day. “Other cities are hav­ing th­ese con­ver­sa­tions.”

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and com­mu­nity ac­tivists won a vic­tory in 2012 when two no­to­ri­ous coal-burn­ing power plants in Lit­tle Vil­lage and Pilsen were closed af­ter a long bat­tle. But ac­tivists still have their hands full else­where.

They are protest­ing the new MAT Asphalt plant in the McKin­ley Park neigh­bor­hood — right across the street from the clas­sic South­west Side park.

They are un­der­stand­ably alarmed by the pres­ence of al­most 90 acres of for­mer toxic-waste dumps just a short walk from the CHA’s Alt­geld Gar­dens and

Trum­bull Park. They have been bat­tling pet­coke and man­ganese con­tam­i­na­tion for years on the South­east Side.

And they are fight­ing a plan by Gen­eral Iron to move a metal shred­der from Lin­coln Park to the East Side, which al­ready suf­fers from res­pi­ra­tory health is­sues.

A re­port re­leased last month by the Shriver Cen­ter on Poverty Law doc­u­ments how fed­eral poli­cies his­tor­i­cally en­cour­aged the place­ment of fed­er­ally as­sisted hous­ing devel­op­ments in ar­eas of en­vi­ron­men­tal con­tam­i­na­tion — and also al­lowed in­dus­tries that pol­lute to be built near ex­ist­ing low-in­come hous­ing.

That would be the very op­po­site of en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice.

More than a pol­lu­tion threat

En­vi­ron­men­tal in­jus­tice is about more than di­rect air, water and noise pol­lu­tion.

Eco­nom­i­cally chal­lenged com­mu­ni­ties also tend to be prone to flood­ing and are vul­ner­a­ble to heat waves, not un­like the heat wave Chicago is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing now, be­cause they of­ten lack tree cover and parks. For a sixth straight day on Wed­nes­day, the Illi­nois En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tect Agency is­sued an air qual­ity alert for the city.

But mak­ing com­mu­ni­ties en­vi­ron­men­tally safer has got­ten tougher un­der Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. His ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­versed at least 100 en­vi­ron­men­tal rules. Lim­its on car­bon diox­ide emis­sions from power plants and ve­hi­cles have been weak­ened, for ex­am­ple, and power plants can more eas­ily emit mer­cury.

Pro­tect­ing less ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties is com­pli­cated fur­ther in Illi­nois by a law that pro­hibits the state En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency from con­sid­er­ing the cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect of mul­ti­ple in­dus­try per­mits, says Jen Walling, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Illi­nois En­vi­ron­men­tal Coun­cil. The ef­fect of the pro­hi­bi­tion is that a neigh­bor­hood might be be­set by var­i­ous types of pol­lu­tion — from power plants, sewage treat­ment plants, in­cin­er­a­tors and waste sites — that, if looked at in­di­vid­u­ally, do not ex­ceed le­gal lim­its. But cu­mu­la­tively, they can make life mis­er­able.

Illi­nois should fol­low the lead of New Jer­sey, where the state Se­nate last week ap­proved leg­is­la­tion that re­quires a more all-en­com­pass­ing ap­proach to assess­ing the im­pact of en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tion.

New city ad­viser on en­vi­ron­ment

Eco­nomic jus­tice can get com­pli­cated. At times, com­mu­ni­ties are ac­tu­ally wary of im­prove­ments such as re­plac­ing old in­dus­trial sites with parks, wor­ried about higher prop­erty taxes and rents.

Res­i­dents also some­times are wary that air and water test­ing could tag their neigh­bor­hood as an en­vi­ron­men­tally un­safe place to live. But air and water pol­lu­tion travel. Less pol­lu­tion in one part of town means a lit­tle less pol­lu­tion in ev­ery part of town.

On June 11, Mayor Lori Light­foot named a pol­icy ad­viser on en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues, An­gela To­var, which we wel­come. And the Metropoli­tan Water Recla­ma­tion District’s new wa­ter­shed man­age­ment or­di­nance for the first time re­quires that the dis­parate im­pact on dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties be taken into con­sid­er­a­tion.

But let’s face it.

When kids for decades are al­lowed to play base­ball on a field full of toxic lead and arsenic — and only now is some­thing be­ing done about that — it’s safe to say Chicago’s got a long way to go when it comes to en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice.

TYLER LARIVIERE/SUN-TIMES

Hegewisch Lit­tle League Field is fi­nally get­ting a soil cleanup through fed­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal of­fi­cials.

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