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Emanuel proposes higher fines for environmental violations

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) has urged Mayor Rahm Emanuel to crack the whip against tire dumping, an environmental hazard that Lopez claims was endangering the lives of Southwest Side residents and destroying their quality of life. It looks like the mayor finally got the message. | Photo by Tim Hadac/Archer Journal News

Rookie Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) has urged Mayor Rahm Emanuel to crack the whip against tire dumping, an environmental hazard that Lopez claims was endangering the lives of Southwest Side residents and destroying their quality of life.

It looks like the mayor finally got the message, even though it took seven months of behind-the-scenes lobbying.

At last week’s City Council meeting, Emanuel quietly introduced an ordinance that would overhaul Chicago’s environmental code to include sharply higher fines for the most egregious violations.

For example, the maximum penalty for unremoved motor vehicles, ashes, refuse, waste or other debris from vacant lots would be raised from $1,500 to $5,000 for each offense.

The wider fine ranges are aimed at “differentiating small public nuisances” such as standing water, from serious violations like toxic mercury spills that pose a serious threat to public health, officials said.

The mayor’s plan also would sharpen the vague violation of “air pollution” to the more specific “windborne particulate matter,” easing enforcement.

Lopez applauded the mayor for “sending a message that we need to be more responsive to our environment and to our neighborhoods and stop some of the illegal dumping, particularly in our African-American and Latino communities.”

He added, “I’m sure that our efforts brought this issue to his attention. And when the mayor sees how much money we’ve been spending and taxpayers realize we’ve been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to clean up these sites that have been illegally dumped on, this is an effort to maybe curb that and recoup some of those costs.”

In an email to the Chicago Sun-Times, mayoral spokesperson Lauren Huffman noted that the environmental code tailor-made to protect neighborhoods from pollution and other environmental nuisances was last updated in 2009, and that update “was not exhaustive.”

“By applying higher fines for egregious violations of environmental laws, it will improve our ability to enforce violations and protect the public,” Huffman wrote. “In addition to helping our residents and businesses to achieve better compliance with environmental law and best practices, we believe these changes will improve our ability to keep our neighborhoods safe, clean and pollution-free for all residents to enjoy.”

Seven months ago, Lopez was on the warpath about tire dumping in Brighton Park and Back of the Yards.

He argued that the illegal tire dumps not only posed a “grave danger” to public health. They demonstrated a “lack of respect” for communities of color.

“This kind of activity would never be allowed to persist in some other areas of the city, and we should not accept it on the Southwest Side,” he said then. “Given the environmental challenges tires can pose, we should be taking every step possible to encourage responsible, environmentally friendly disposal of tires in Chicago. . . . I urge the city to take immediate steps to show they are taking this issue seriously.”

At the time, he urged the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection to slap tire shops using Southwest Side neighborhoods as a dumping ground with penalties already on the books: $1,500 for the first offense, vehicle impoundment and even jail time.

Lopez pointed to a section of the city’s municipal code that requires tire shops to provide disposal invoices, including the name and address of the licensed disposal facility, the number of tires disposed of, and the name and license number of the transporter.

The law is aimed at preventing tire dumping that can become a fire and environmental hazard as well as an eyesore.