Eight years ago, Chicago disbanded its Department of the Environment. At a time when the Trump administration is systematically undermining environmental protections across the country, it’s time to bring the department back.
“We feel very strongly that we desperately need a Department of the Environment,” says Gerald W. Adelmann, president and CEO of Chicago-based Openlands, one of the oldest metropolitan conservation groups in the country. “We need that level of expertise and leadership and capacity within city government. It has been a great loss in so many ways.“
Environmentalists and aldermen point to numerous areas where a revived department is needed. Among them are:
• Recycling. Just 9 percent of Chicago’s residential waste is recycled, the worst rate among the nation’s big cities, partly because no one is doing enough to get the word out about the proper way to do it.
“I am continually frustrated by the fact that the public is not educated [about recycling],” Ald. Matthew J. O’Shea (19th) told the Sun-Times Editorial Board. “We’re really missing the boat there because other cities do a much better job.”
• Lead in drinking water. An Environment Department could lead a stronger effort to test for and remove lead from water service lines in the city.
• Clean Energy. Chicago is committed to powering all municipal operations with 100 percent clean energy by 2025, which would seem like an excellent argument for bringing back the Environment Department. It could also lead an effort to push the rest of the city toward clean, renewable energy, and work to improve the energy efficiency of buildings throughout the city.
• Sewer overflows. Sewer overflows send untreated sewage, litter and tainted runoff right into the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. Here, again, an Environment Department could provide expertise and push the city to work harder on finding ways to reduce overflows.
• Chemicals used to protect fabric and as flame retardants. These under-regulated chemicals — which are linked to cancer, immune and endocrine disorders, infertility and developmental risks for babies and children — are showing up in public water supplies across the country. A city Environment Department could better monitor and safeguard our drinking water.
In an era of rollbacks in environmental protection by the Trump administration, municipal and state governments need to step up. To do that on a city level, Chicago needs the heft of an independent Environment Department.
It would help the city budget and dedicate resources to improving the city’s environment. Such a department also would give the public a tangible unit of government to turn to and work with. And it would make it easier for the city to coordinate efforts with other units of government on regional efforts, such as blocking invasive species, including Asian carp.
Environmentalists say it’s tough to work with the city. They don’t know whom to call. They don’t know whom to negotiate with.
In disbanding the Environment Department, the Emanuel administration argued that environmental sustainability should be a focus of all city departments, not the job of a single bureaucratic silo. But local environmentalists, such as the Sierra Club, say the result has been a de-emphasis on environmental issues, partly because the Office of Sustainability, which replaced the Environment Department, is a smaller office.
There is support in the City Council for the idea. Ald. Harry Osterman (48th), for example, told the Sun-Times Editorial Board that one of the first things he will do when a new mayor is sworn in is to try to re-establish a Department of the Environment.
Ald. Roderick T. Sawyer (6th) told us he thinks it never should have been disbanded.
Also, in responding to a Sun-Times questionnaire inquiry about environmental priorities, mayoral candidates Lori Lightfoot and Amara Enyia called for bringing back the Environment Department.
Establishing an Environment Department the first time around was a foresighted decision. In intervening years, the need has only grown greater. Let’s bring it back.
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