Chicago takes on new approach to fight pollution problems, focusing on environmental justice

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Monday, September 18, 2023 11:31PM
Chicago takes on new environmental justice plan
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Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson spoke about the city's new approach to fight air pollution problems by focusing on environmental justice.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Pollution problems in certain Chicago neighborhoods are prompting the city to take a new approach to how it addresses environmental concerns.

The changes come on the heels of a new study that focuses on environmental justice.

When a contractor imploded the old Crawford Coal plant chimney in 2020, it sent up a plume of dangerous dust that covered much of Little Village, prompting a community outcry.

Similar concerns about environmental justice sparked protests about the plan to move the now-shuttered General Iron metal scrapping facility from Lincoln Park to the city's Southeast Side.

Now, after decades of work by environmental groups, the city is revamping its approach to zoning and permitting, particularly as it pertains to parts of the city that have been most impacted by pollution.

"In the greatest city in the world, no neighborhood should have to suffer the burdens of pollution more so than any other neighborhood. In fact, the time to act on environmental justice is now," said Mayor Brandon Johnson.

A newly-released study on the cumulative impact of pollution shows the majority of neighborhoods that are most negatively impacted on are on the West and South sides.

"The release of this report is not the conclusion, but really, the beginning of a new chapter in Chicago's journey towards environmental justice, a Chicago where we put the health of our people first, our communities first and our planet first," said Chicago Chief Sustainability Officer Angela Tovar.

Officials connected pollution from industry and major highway traffic with the 10-year life expectancy gap between Black and white Chicagoans.

"Evidence shows there's a strong relationship between pollution exposure and health from things like dust, to lead, to diesel emissions," said Chicago Dept. Of Public Health Deputy Commissioner Megan Cunningham.

The study calls for taking steps such as planting more trees and expanding air quality monitoring.

Johnson said this is not a shot across the bow at industry. Others agree, and see it as an invitation for environmentally-friendly development.

"Together, we can prove the economic development and environmental justice are not mutually exclusive, but rather, can coexist," said Southeast Side Environmental Task Force Executive Director Olga Bautista.

Johnson could not say how long it will take for the new approach to make a difference on those communities most adversely impacted, but said there is a commitment to making it happen as soon as possible.