Meet the woman in charge of Chicago's fight against pollution, environmental injustice

Commissioner Angela Tovar is city's Chief Sustainability Officer and head of Dept. of Environment

ByMark Rivera and Blanca Rios WLS logo
Thursday, January 25, 2024
Meet the woman leading Chicago's fight against pollution
Chicago's Chief Sustainability Officer Angela Tovar is charged with the city's fight against pollution and environmental injustice.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The woman charged with fighting pollution in Chicago knows firsthand what it can do to a family.

Angela Tovar, the city's Chief Sustainability Officer, grew up in the South Chicago neighborhood close to the flames and smoke of the steel mills.

"I can recall so many stories of my childhood, just like the big fire flare in the sky, passing the mills," said Tovar.

Tovar's parents migrated from Mexico to work in those steel mills and raise a family on the Southeast Side of the city.

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"Two out of the four of us suffered from very severe asthma growing up nd, you know, that's not a connection that you make at the time," Tovar said. "Not a lot of criticism back then of the pollution impacts of steel production."

The impact of that industry is what helped inspire Tovar to pursue environmental work. She said she grew up just streets away from the neighborhood nicknamed Slag Valley because of the steel mills and the toxic waste that was kept out in the open air.

"All of that is part of my history and really was a motivator," Tovar said.

Just south of Tovar's old neighborhood is Big Marsh Park in the South Deering community. The park sits on once polluted land that's since been reclaimed and remediated by the Chicago Park District. As she walked along that once toxic ground, Tovar said her intention is to implement policy changes to protect communities that are still centers of industry in the city.

"People that are most impacted by pollution are Black and brown and low income communities on the South and West sides, communities that are either bisected by major highways and or communities that are in close proximity to clusters of pollution producing facilities," said Tovar.

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Tovar was initially appointed by former Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Mayor Brandon Johnson retained her and proposed to reestablish a new Department of Environment that was shuttered in 2012 by then Mayor Rahm Emanuel to help save money.

Tovar, who also serves as Commissioner of the Department of Environment said she's working on coordinating citywide responses to environmental injustice.

"We really want to overcome that as the city of Chicago. Part of that is understanding and acknowledging that history," she said. "It is grappling with our role as city government and whether we did it intentionally or unintentionally, what our role was in that history."

Chicago's 2022 climate action plan calls for a goal of reducing the city's carbons emissions 62% by 2040.

Last year, the Environmental Justice Working Group released recommendations that include tracking efforts to increase city environmental testing of vacant lots, reduction of traffic congestion, emission control procedures, freight reducing street designs, green allies to reduce flooding, tree planting, community-level air quality monitoring and updating zoning regulations for where and what industries can operate among a host of other initiatives.

"Is there a review that can take place at the time of zoning so we can think about whether or not a facility fits within the context of the surrounding community or if there is an environmental harm that emerges through a development process, how can we evaluate that and mitigate that," said Tovar.

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Tovar said a major milestone is coming to Chicago next year when the city plans to use 100% renewable energy at all city facilities through a partnership with a solar farm downstate and purchase of clean energy credits.

"In addition to that, we're transitioning our fleet. We're moving to all electric as well," Tovar said. " We have an overarching plan to reduce the city's carbon emissions 62 percent by the year."