Chicagoans in minority neighborhoods on the West and South Sides have the greatest exposure to toxic air pollution and other environmental health hazards in the city, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis that community groups are using to fight Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s industrial planning practices.
The findings, illustrated through a citywide map and provided to the Better Government Association, were compiled by the environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council. The group hopes to use the document to persuade city officials to stop a frequent practice of steering scrap yards, distribution warehouses and other polluting businesses to the same neighborhoods with large concentrations of Latinos and African Americans.
Among the most dramatically affected communities: Little Village, Pilsen and the far Southeast Side. Activists in those communities say Emanuel’s city planners are pushing dirty industries to majority Latino and black communities while neighborhoods like Lincoln Park on the more well-to-do North Side are shedding their industrial past to make way for condos and high-end amenities.
The data behind the map scores areas of the city based on 11 environmental benchmarks defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, including toxic pollution in the air and water, proximity to hazardous waste, exposure to lead paint and vehicle traffic. It also factors in demographic characteristics, including race and income, for all households in so-called census blocks, narrow geographic slices of the city defined by the U.S. Census and sometimes smaller than an acre in size.
Officials at the NRDC say the city, whether under Emanuel or the soon-to-retire mayor’s successor, can use the analysis to make decisions about where to locate polluting factories, freight operations and other facilities as well as rethink planning and zoning practices. The information also could be useful in guiding city decisions on what areas are most in need of environmental monitoring and enforcement of anti-pollution laws.
“Those places that are most burdened are the last places you should put factories,” said Yukyan Lam, who created the NRDC map. “If you’re going to build another warehouse facility, it’s going to add to air pollution. Any kind of planning, any kind of zoning should keep in mind the burden.”
The Chicago study results show the greatest exposure to air, water and land pollution falls on neighborhoods with large concentrations of African American and Latino residents, ranging from the far South Side to Little Village, Pilsen and McKinley Park on the West and Southwest Sides. African-American neighborhoods such as Englewood and Roseland also rank high for pollution exposure. Some pockets of North Side neighborhoods, including sections of Albany Park, Avondale, Irving Park and West Ridge, also show high levels of pollution exposure.
The environmental group’s research represents a thorough analysis, according to one state official.
“You look at the map and certain areas just stand out,” said Chris Pressnall, environmental justice officer for the Illinois EPA. “It’s a thoughtful bit of research.”
Environmental justice policies have been written into law in Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Newark, New Jersey. California uses a pollution hazard map similar to the one produced for Chicago to inform policy in regards to environmental justice communities. And New York City last year passed a law to create an environmental justice plan.
Chris Wheat, Emanuel’s policy chief and formerly the the mayor’s top sustainability officer, was noncommittal on whether city officials would use the NRDC data to make policy decisions. But he acknowledged there are disproportionate pollution problems across Chicago. “We hear the concerns,” he said.
Still, Wheat said the city has made “significant progress” in tightening regulations, pointing to new restrictions on manganese as part of efforts to address harmful chemicals on the Southeast Side.
“I don’t think our efforts ever stop,” he said. “We are not resting on our laurels.”
Environmental justice is a term rooted in former President Bill Clinton’s administration. In 1994, Clinton signed an executive order that created an office within the EPA that “works to protect human health and the environment in communities overburdened by environmental pollution by integrating environmental justice into all EPA programs, policies and activities.”
Mapping can be used to identify areas that are deemed environmental justice communities as well as create and enforce policies.
The Illinois Power Agency, a state body that oversees the purchase of electricity by utilities that serve residential and small businesses, is putting together a list of environmental justice communities to determine eligibility for solar energy generation projects funded through the same 2016 law that steered millions of dollars in subsidies to two Exelon nuclear power plants.
The NRDC, which has allied itself with the neighborhood groups, produced its map to provide them ammunition in resisting relocations of dirtier industries to their communities. A spokesman for the NRDC said it paid for the research, not the community groups.
Little Village activists fought a proposed warehouse development that is expected to bring hundreds of diesel-fuel trucks to their neighborhood every day, a strain on a community that already suffers from poor air quality, local and federal statistics show. The warehouse project received approvals from city plan and zoning panels as well as the City Council in September.
The new NRDC research was completed as the administration was conducting a review of two dozen zones that were formally designated by the city in the 1990s as industrial corridors because of concentrations of heavy industry and proximity to highways, railroads and waterways such as the Chicago River. The goal of the designation was to provide protections and incentives to lure new industry to the city while keeping older industrial firms from leaving.
The city’s public health officials declined to comment to the BGA despite repeated questions about the NRDC’s findings. Instead, a spokeswoman provided a statement that said the department “is committed to improving the health of our residents, communities and environment. As part of our commitment, we regularly work with other city agencies to ensure health is considered when making decisions. We know that when communities have more economic opportunities, better transportation and cleaner streets, health improves.”
The statement also said that the health agency “partners regularly with the Chicago Department of Planning and Development (DPD) to provide insight and information regarding their efforts to invest in our communities.”
Kimberly Wasserman, executive director of the community activist group Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, said she wants the research to begin a new dialogue with the city.
“What we hope to gain is a conversation on environmental and health impacts,” Wasserman said. “You can look at them individually but you also have to look at them collectively.”
She said she also hopes the data will “empower” the city of Chicago’s Department of Public Health to study Little Village and other communities that live with pollution caused by nearby manufacturing and transportation-related developments.
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