City actions to crack down on polluters plummeted during Rahm Emanuel’s two terms as mayor even as he played up green credentials and attacked state and federal officials for rolling back environmental protections, a Better Government Association investigation shows.
An analysis by the BGA and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, using environmental oversight data compiled by the city, found:
- Since 2012, Emanuel’s first full year as mayor, his environmental watchdogs have written fewer than one-third the number of citations for air, water and other types of pollution than were issued during the previous seven years, almost all under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.
- Budget cuts and attrition led to the city’s environmental inspector corps being slashed almost in half during Emanuel’s time in office. Annual inspections also dropped by more than half, records show.
- Hazardous material inspections fell by more than 90 percent between 2010 and 2018; air quality inspections plunged almost 70 percent; and solid waste inspections dropped by more than 60 percent.
- The drop in inspections and enforcement actions coincided with Emanuel’s decision to eliminate a dedicated city department for environmental oversight as well as a hotline for resident complaints about pollution. Instead, residents were told to direct environmental concerns to the city’s catch-all 311 service, which also deals with a garden variety of complaints about garbage service, rodents, potholes and more.
Emanuel’s track record on environmental enforcement stands in contrast to his rhetoric.
After years of environmental staff cutbacks, the Democratic mayor finally reversed course in his 2018 budget and issued a press release taunting President Donald Trump and then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, both Republicans.
“Mayor Emanuel’s expansion of environmental protection staff comes at the same time state and federal officials have rolled back efforts to protect residents from pollution,” read the statement, which omitted mention of past reductions under the mayor.
City officials insist enforcement is just one piece of Emanuel’s environmental agenda and that he should be given credit for other efforts to prevent pollution, including the promotion of clean energy and greater use of air monitors in the city to detect pollution.
“It would be unfair to look at these numbers as our only commitment to the environment,” said Julie Morita, Emanuel’s public health commissioner.
“I would give him a D-minus for enforcement,” said longtime South Side environmental activist Cheryl Johnson.
Emanuel took office in 2011 and his 2012 budget unveiled later that year included a sweeping overhaul of environmental enforcement. In a cost-cutting effort, the new mayor did away with the Department of Environment created under his predecessor Daley and parceled its responsibilities primarily to the Department of Public Health, which by ordinance was handed all responsibility for environmental permitting and enforcement.
Administration officials argued at the time that the old arrangement detracted from a broader focus on green policies throughout city government.
Overall, however, the city’s own numbers point to a trend during Emanuel’s tenure of fewer resources and less enforcement to deter polluters.
Chemicals, garbage and sewage
On the Far South Side, the air is thick with the smell of chemicals, garbage and sewage. “No Dumping” signs surround the Altgeld Gardens public housing complex, where Johnson lives and works, because the area is a magnet for illegal dumping. The naturally flat landscape is dotted with rolling hills that were once active landfills. It’s one of the most environmentally burdened neighborhoods in the city.
Johnson, executive director of People for Community Recovery, said Emanuel’s decision to shut down the environmental enforcement department sent a message that residents are on their own to fight pollution. So, to address foul smells from a nearby sewage treatment plant operated by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, residents bypassed the city in recent years and complained directly to the MWRD, a strategy Johnson said has been more effective in getting results.
“You get tired of beating on a dead horse,” she said.
Miles to the north in the Pilsen neighborhood, some residents have been complaining for years about dust from a car-shredding operation run by Sims Metal Management. In 2012, Emanuel’s city inspectors cited the business for two air-quality violations but assessed no fines.
More recently in December, records show the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded a two-year investigation of the Sims facility with a fine of $225,000, one of the largest in Cook County involving air quality issues last year.
While the EPA was looking at Sims, records show that city inspectors also visited the site more than a dozen times, including at least five visits that followed complaints. But the city issued no violations, concluding on one occasion that any smells “were not excessive or pungent,” records show.
In a statement, Sims said the odor complaints from last year were “unsubstantiated” and were a separate issue from the EPA case. “We diligently work with regulators to ensure that we are fully current with federal, state and local regulations,” the company said.
Gail Selleg, a longtime Pilsen resident, said she was among those complaining last year to the city about a metallic taste in the air and a bad smell she believed was caused by Sims. Selleg said she doesn’t know if city inspectors followed up on her complaint, but noted that the federal EPA action against the company makes clear that it is a problem.
In interviews with the BGA, Morita, the public health commissioner, said recent additions to the inspection staff by Emanuel were a recognition that more robust enforcement was needed.
“We wanted to be better,” Morita said. “We identified that need. We sought resources.”
Morita also said inspection and enforcement data show only part of the public health department’s efforts to protect Chicagoans from environmental harm. She cited the department’s work in recent years to help strengthen city rules on the handling of harmful materials such as manganese and petroleum coke that presented a threat to health on Chicago’s Southeast Side.
To conduct the analysis of Emanuel’s environmental records, the BGA and Medill pulled data from the Department of Public Health’s public database of environmental violations, which also includes enforcement actions under the old Department of Environment. Those violations can lead to fines in the thousands of dollars, but comparing the penalties levied from year to year proved difficult because of messy data keeping by the city.
The analysis found the city issued roughly 3,500 citations for environmental violations between 2012, the first year after the Department of Environment was disbanded, and 2018. The comparable number of citations issued in the seven years prior to that was just over 11,200 — three times greater than under Emanuel.
City records also show a significant decline during Emanuel’s tenure in environmental inspections. In 2010, the old environment department was budgeted to have an 18-member staff dealing with permits and inspections. Records show it carried out 11,571 inspections that year.
By 2014, the budgeted headcount of the permit and inspections team fell to just nine under public health, and that shrunken squad completed 5,907 environmental inspections.
The budget for the inspections staff grew to 23 by 2018 after the additions that Emanuel touted. Even so, records show the number of inspections completed last year were 5,469, below the total of 2014 when the staff was nearly one-third the size.
Like many city agencies, the public health department publishes its violations data on a publicly accessible city website called the Chicago Data Portal. Emanuel has long praised the portal — which also includes records on building code violations, city contracts, lobbyist registration and more — as a symbol of his administration’s transparency and openness.
But during the course of reporting this investigation, public health officials sought to wave reporters off from relying on numbers their own department had posted on the public website. The official numbers were fundamentally inaccurate, they warned.
For example, public health spokeswoman Anel Ruiz said the data was incomplete because some enforcement and inspection responsibilities were handed to other city departments when the Department of Environment dissolved. Any resulting records would not be accounted for in the data, Ruiz said in a written statement.
When asked about this discrepancy, public health officials did not clearly explain which enforcement responsibilities were exclusively taken over by other city departments, or how the existing data could be properly analyzed to account for this issue.
Ruiz’s explanation appears to conflict with the clear language of the 2011 city ordinance that did away with the environment agency. It stated that the public health department would assume “all rights, powers, duties, obligations and responsibilities of the former commissioner and department of environment related to permitting and enforcement.”
In short, the public health department took over all enforcement duties from the environment department and there should have been no impact on the reporting of inspections and violations.
Of all the changes to environmental enforcement in the city, some city residents seem particularly irked by elimination of the environmental hotline, contending the change made it difficult to complain or sometimes required hundreds of complaints to be lodged with 311 before an environmental inspector was dispatched. Operators at 311 sometimes rout calls about pollution complaints to city departments that don’t handle them, records show.
“It’s hard to explain to a 311 operator who is dealing with a situation they are totally unfamiliar with,” said Peggy Salazar, director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force.
A review of city 311 records related to a series of environmental complaints for an industrial laundry in Pilsen illustrate Salazar’s point. Some air pollution complaints were routed to the buildings department, which doesn’t enforce outdoor air quality issues.
Pilsen resident Selleg said she has long complained about odors coming from her neighborhood, and those complaints stirred official action back in the days when the environment department was still in existence.
“They were totally responsive years ago and ready to jump in trucks and come out,” Selleg said, referring to city inspectors.
Last year, however, Selleg said she once called 311 to complain about a “putrid” odor coming from Sims and was patched through to the city’s 911 hotline reserved for reporting crimes, fires and medical emergencies. Selleg said she doesn’t know whether anything came from that misdirected call.
That industrial laundry, Three Brothers Laundry in the 2600 block of West 19th Street, is another example of a business that generates a lot of odor complaints.
City records show there were more than 600 complaints lodged with 311 about Three Brothers in 2017 alone. Many of the complaints related to strong chemical smells and other foul odors coming from the plant.
Marguerita Breihan, who lives with her husband Mark across an alley from Three Brothers, said the smells have caused her to vomit. The Breihan’s neighbor, Bonfilio Reyes, said his face swells and he suffers from headaches when the odors are strong and that he has to leave his house.
City inspectors showed up following complaints but no air-quality violations were found, according to city records and interviews with Reyes and the Breihans.
Mark Breihan said one city official asked him if he had considered moving, which left Breihan incensed.
“This nightmare showed up and no one even told us,” Mark Breihan said.
City records detail how inspectors came to the property at least 30 times since 2016 as a result of complaints but reported not smelling anything unusual, a claim greeted skeptically by the Breihans and Reyes.
The air-quality complaints didn’t result in any violation citations from the city. In fact, in March 2017, the Breihans received a letter from a city lawyer saying the case was closed.
However, in December of 2018, U.S. EPA officials inspected the Three Brothers site following air-quality complaints from residents and asked the owner for documentation about its compliance with clean air laws and safety of its cleaning materials. The matter is still under review.
Nayan Patel, Three Brothers’ general manager, said he thinks only a small number of neighbors called the city with what he deemed to be “false” complaints. “It’s just basic soap,” he said of the smells.
But the EPA inspection found Three Brothers began a dry-cleaning operation last summer that used the chemical perchloroethylene, according to the EPA report. Exposure to perchloroethylene, or PCE, can cause headaches, nausea, irritations and may pose a cancer risk in extreme cases, according to U.S. health officials.
With Emanuel’s impending departure from the mayor’s office, nearly all of the large group of candidates seeking to replace him have said they want to toughen environmental oversight if elected.
At least three — Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, former Chicago Police Board President Lori Lightfoot and community activist Amara Enyia — have specifically called for restoring an environment department. Some environmental advocates say better-executed enforcement is the best solution.
Still, Emanuel continues to polish his green credentials in the waning days of his tenure. Recently, the mayor set a goal of having every building in the city powered by renewable energy sources by 2035. Some community groups condemned that as hypocritical, contending the mayor announced it to generate headlines while at the same time continuing to ignore immediate environmental threats to residents, particularly on the West and South sides of Chicago.
“It’s all fluff,” said Kimberly Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. She said her group will press the next mayor for more robust pollution oversight.
Medill student Mary Hall also contributed to this report.