Southeast Side residents protesting the planned move of the General Iron metal-shredding business in Lincoln Park to their neighborhood. Community organizer Samuel Corona (center) says the South Side gets businesses the North Side doesn’t want. | Madison Hopkins / BGA

In Chicago, pollution hits West Side, South Side the hardest, study finds

SHARE In Chicago, pollution hits West Side, South Side the hardest, study finds
SHARE In Chicago, pollution hits West Side, South Side the hardest, study finds

Chicagoans in minority neighborhoods on the West Side and South Side have the greatest exposure to toxic air pollution and other environmental health hazards in the city, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis that community groups are using to fight Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s industrial planning practices.

The findings were compiled by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group that plans to use the document to try to persuade city officials to end the common practice of steering scrap yards, distribution warehouses and other polluting businesses to neighborhoods with large concentrations of Latino and African-American residents.

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Among the most dramatically affected communities, the group found, are Little Village, Pilsen and the far Southeast Side.

Activists in those communities say Emanuel’s city planners are pushing dirty industries to majority Latino and black communities, while neighborhoods like Lincoln Park on the more well-to-do North Side are shedding their industrial past for new condo buildings and high-end amenities.

The data behind the NRDC map scores areas of the city based on 11 benchmarks set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, including toxic pollution in the air and water, proximity to hazardous waste, exposure to lead paint and vehicle traffic.

It also factors in demographic characteristics, including race and income, for all households in census blocks — narrow sections of the city that sometimes are smaller than an acre.

The NRDC says City Hall could use the analysis to help decide where to allow polluting factories, freight operations and other facilities and to rethink its planning and zoning policies. The information also could help guide decisions on which areas are most in need of environmental monitoring and enforcement of anti-pollution laws.

“Those places that are most burdened are the last places you should put factories,” says Yukyan Lam, who created the NRDC map. “If you’re going to build another warehouse facility, it’s going to add to air pollution. Any kind of planning, any kind of zoning should keep in mind the burden.”

The study finds the greatest exposure to air, water and land pollution in Chicago falls on neighborhoods with large concentrations of African American and Latino residents, ranging from the Far South Side to Little Village, Pilsen and McKinley Park on the West Side and Southwest Side.

Largely African-American neighborhoods such as Englewood and Roseland also rank high for exposure to pollution.

And pockets of North Side neighborhoods — including sections of Albany Park, Avondale, Irving Park and West Ridge — also show high levels of pollution exposure.

“You look at the map, and certain areas just stand out,” Chris Pressnall, environmental justice officer for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, says of the NRDC findings. “It’s a thoughtful bit of research.”

Environmental justice policies have been written into law in Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Newark, New Jersey. California uses a pollution-hazard map similar to the one the NRDC produced for Chicago. And last year New York City passed a law to create an environmental justice plan.

Chris Wheat, Emanuel’s policy chief and formerly the the mayor’s top sustainability officer, won’t say whether city officials will use the NRDC data to make policy decisions. But, acknowledging the disproportionate effects of pollution across Chicago, Wheat says, “We hear the concerns.”

Wheat says the city has made “significant progress” in tightening pollution regulations, pointing to new restrictions on manganese as part of efforts to address harmful chemicals on the Southeast Side.

“We are not resting on our laurels,” he says. 

The term environmental justice is rooted in former President Bill Clinton’s administration. In 1994, Clinton signed an executive order that created an office within the EPA that “works to protect human health and the environment in communities overburdened by environmental pollution by integrating environmental justice into all EPA programs, policies and activities.”

The Illinois Power Agency, a state agency that oversees the purchase of electricity by utilities that serve residences and small businesses, is putting together a list of environmental justice communities to determine eligibility for solar energy projects funded through the 2016 law that also steered millions of dollars in subsidies to two Exelon nuclear plants.

The NRDC has aligned itself with neighborhood groups, producing the map to provide ammunition for them to resist the relocation of dirty industries to their communities. The NRDC says it — not community groups — paid for the research.

In Little Village, activists fought a proposed warehouse development that’s expected to bring hundreds of diesel-fuel trucks a day to their neighborhood, a which already has poor air quality, according to local and federal data. The warehouse project got planning and zoning approvals and a go-ahead from the city council in September.

The NRDC completed its research as the Emanuel administration was conducting its own review of two dozen zones designated by the city in the 1990s as industrial corridors because of concentrations of heavy industry and proximity to highways, railroads and waterways including the Chicago River. The designation aimed to provide protections and incentives to lure industry to the city and keep industrial companies from leaving.

The former Crawford coal-fired power plant sits little more than a mile from Little Village Lawndale High School. People who live in the neighborhood are concerned about the health impact of a warehouse development at the site that will bring hundreds of

The former Crawford coal-fired power plant sits little more than a mile from Little Village Lawndale High School. People who live in the neighborhood are concerned about the health impact of a warehouse development at the site that will bring hundreds of diesel trucks a day to the neighborhood. | Madison Hopkins / BGA

City public health officials declined to comment on the NRDC’s findings. In a written statement, a spokeswoman says: “We regularly work with other city agencies to ensure health is considered when making decisions. We know that when communities have more economic opportunities, better transportation and cleaner streets, health improves.”

The statement also says the city health agency “partners regularly with the Chicago Department of Planning and Development to provide insight and information regarding their efforts to invest in our communities.”

Kimberly Wasserman, executive director of the community activist group Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, says she hopes the NRDC research prompts new dialogue with city officials.

“What we hope to gain is a conversation on environmental and health impacts,” Wasserman says. “You can look at them individually, but you also have to look at them collectively.”


Brett Chase reports for the Better Government Association.

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