Chicagoans today, compared to our grandparents’ generation, can breathe a lot more easily because of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Our air is clearer. Our water cleaner. Our children healthier.

The battle over the EPA’s budget may be waging far away in Washington, but many of the agency’s big success stories can be found right here in the Chicago area. To go back now on that commitment to a cleaner environment would be foolish. To return to the days of ozone alerts and children eating peeled lead paint would be unconscionable.

In Washington, President Donald Trump wants to cut the EPA budget by 31 percent, hobbling an agency we rely on every day, even if we don’t know it. A fifth of the agency’s positions would be eliminated, and Trump wants to slash scientific research.

That would matter plenty to Chicago, a city on the precious Great Lakes that has moved on — but is still cleaning up — from a heavily polluted industrial past. A city that likes its fancy new Riverwalk, which would be folly if the Chicago River were still the open sewer it once was.

EDITORIAL

Reminders of why Chicago should support a fully functioning EPA are all around us.

  • Municipal sewage treatment plants throughout the region have been updated to EPA standards, making water cleaner. The EPA also took a lead role in ensuring that wastewater from sewage treatment plants is disinfected before it is discharged into Chicago area waterways.
  • The EPA has coordinated a multiyear effort to keep invasive Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. The EPA also plays a role in preventing new invasive species from being dumped into the lakes from the ballast water of oceangoing ships.
  • When the operators of BP’s oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana, wanted send more toxic pollution into the air, that was OK with the State of Indiana. But the EPA stopped it. In 2007, when the refinery got a permit to dump 54 percent more ammonia and 35 percent more suspended solids into Lake Michigan each year, the EPA stopped that, too.
  • Dangerous heavy metals from an H. Kramer and Co. smelter that got into residential yards in Pilsen will be cleaned up because of an EPA investigation. The EPA also cleaned up the site of the former Loewenthal Metals in Pilsen.
  • The EPA provides funding for beach monitoring, so we all know when it is safe to swim.
  • The EPA did a study showing mountains of petcoke stored on the South Side were causing chronic health problems. Only the EPA has the authority to install the monitors that measure the petcoke on surrounding neighborhoods.
  • The EPA played a major role in detecting lead in the municipal water supply of Flint, Michigan – work that led to a program to get lead out of drinking water in Chicago’s schools.
  • The EPA won a court fight in 1977 to reduce the amount of industrial waste getting into Lake Michigan and the Grand Calumet River from U.S. Steel’s Gary Works.
  • The EPA runs the Great Lakes National Program Office, which plans for the protection and restoration of the lakes for years to come.
  • With the Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA is paying to dredging and remove toxic sediments in the heavily polluted Grand Calumet River in Indiana. If not removed, those pollutants eventually will move into the lake.
  • It was the EPA that found that residents of East Chicago, Indiana, had lead in their drinking water. The EPA put 30 people on the ground to investigation environmental contamination from the former USS Lead site in East Chicago.

Air pollution in Chicago in 1961. | Sun-Times Library

The U.S. EPA’s budget already has been squeezed in recent years. If its budget now is decimated, that will hobble the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, too. The IEPA gets a fifth of its funding from the U.S. EPA.

Our city, region and state cannot afford such cuts. Too much work remains undone throughout the region.

As Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, put it: “Everybody has a basic belief they will have clean air and water without having to wake up in the morning wondering if that is going to happen.”

The proposed cuts to the EPA are huge. If they go through, you can bet Chicago will be wondering what might happen again.