Earth Day 2023: Taking a look at Chicago environmental groups in Little Village, Altgeld Gardens

ByKay Cesinger WLS logo
Sunday, April 16, 2023
Our Chicago
WLS

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Ahead of Earth Day, "Our Chicago" is looking at the work of environmental groups in the city -- discussing concerns in the neighborhoods where they operate and what they hope for when Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson takes office.

Neighborhoods like Little Village, where a botched implosion of a smoke stack in 2020 covered the area in dust and debris, are the focus.

And on Chicago's Southeast Side, people fought and stopped the planned move of a metal scrapping company to their neighborhood from Lincoln Park.

Olga Bautista, executive director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, explained how she defines environmental justice.

"I think when we have clean air, clean water, and a clean neighborhood, and a clean backyard for kids to play with and also reparations for all the suffering that our communities have endured, there's also the issue of a lot of sick people, who, it was no fault of their own, that are now, for life, going to have COPD, respiratory problems, heart problems. So, having universal healthcare is environmental justice in our opinion," Bautista said.

Cheryl Johnson's mother founded "People for Community Recovery" after learning that people in Altgeld Gardens, where she lived, had high rates of cancer.

"Our Chicago" spoke to Johnson last April during Earth Month.

At the time, she said people are more aware of environmental racism thanks to her mother's work, but that challenges remain "because of the practice of the regulatory agencies and just local government that had a blind eye to what the public was experiencing."

She cited air quality issues, water quality issues and living on land that's contaminated, "and there was no processes or policies in place at the time when we started 40 years ago to have a conversation with us."

She said to be here today right now, "...there's opportunities to have these dialogues and conversations, but we're still a long way away from addressing the racism part of environmental justice issues in our community."

Looking ahead to the incoming Johnson administration, Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, talked about the Cumulative Impacts Ordinance.

"This is a suite of ordinances that we have been collectively working on across the South and Southwest Side of Chicago because we understand what it means when you don't have protections for communities right now. We end up in situations like Hilco, the botched implosion, we end up situations like General Iron, MAT Asphalt in McKinley Park. And so for us, it's really important to work with the Johnson administration, and I do recognize that this was started under the Lightfoot administration, to be able to continue to do the research and the work to figure out what are the policies needed to protect environmental justice communities like our, where the air quality is bad, where the lack of access to health insurance exacerbates the impacts that folks are feeling," Wasserman said. "We want to look at communities that are on the frontline, if you will, of these industries and figure out a better way to protect them because, if we don't, we're going to have to continue to fight, and we're going to continue to see environmental degradation in a city like Chicago. And what that results in is more flooding, more experiences of flooding, things like COVID exacerbating in our communities, and we are already experiencing those things. And we want to figure out how to mitigate the harms in our community."