Enyia vows to establish Department of Environmental Justice

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Mayoral Candidate Amara Enyia, shown at a campaign rally last week, said Monday she would create city Department of Environmental Justice. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Mayoral candidate Amara Enyia vowed Monday to establish a Department of Environmental Justice to reverse “weak and negligent” city policies that “amount to systemic racism” because they have allowed businesses to pollute black and brown neighborhoods.

Shortly after taking office, Mayor Rahm Emanuel abolished the city’s Department of Environment.

At the time, the mayor argued it wasn’t so much as a cost-saving measure as it was an attempt to ensure environmental policy was embedded in every city department.

On Monday, Enyia argued otherwise.

She accused City Hall of prioritizing business interests over public health, leaving residents of the city’s Far Southeast Side, for example, to fight a lonely and never-ending battle against the dangers of petcoke and release of potentially harmful manganese dust.

Dust buildup is shown on a house in the 10th Ward where the KCBX Terminals Co. stores petcoke.  | Provided photo

Dust buildup is shown on a house in the 10th Ward where the KCBX Terminals Co. stores petcoke. | Provided photo

“It harkens back to what happened in Flint, Michigan where it affected largely low-income communities of color and nothing was done until it became a severe crisis,” Enyia told the Sun-Times.

“Many of these communities — like Englewood, like in Austin, like in Pill Hill and Hegewisch — are experiencing pretty significant environmental hazards and the city has not really done anything to address them head on. It perpetuates systemic racism, which is not just the word racism. It’s how it plays out in our policies as a city and how that negatively impacts communities.”

If elected mayor, Enyia vowed to establish a Department of Environmental Justice with a far broader mandate than its predecessor ever had.

The new department would be charged with establishing “special environmental zoning districts” to enforce what she called “equitable and restorative zoning parameters.”

“If a company is deciding to locate, for example, on the Far Southeast Side, there should be a protective measure the city can enact that will prevent that company from locating in that area,” Enyia said.

“People are living in areas that were primarily industrial before. We have to update our zoning laws. And until we update our zoning laws, we should have these special, designated areas that protect residents from additional environmental hazards. That’s something the city needs to lead on.”

By pooling the resources of the city and county Departments of Public Health, Enyia promised to hire “environmental medical personnel” to work with heavily impacted communities to “mitigate long-term health risks” tied to lead, manganese, pet coke and other toxic materials.

“That’s something that the city has really been slow in moving on,” she said.

Besides spearheading a local version of the “Green New Deal,” Enyia talked about a “Blue New Deal.” That is, removing lead from Chicago’s water system.

As for the cost of replacing lead service lines carrying water from the mains to an estimated 360,000 Chicago homes, Enyia proposed the city share the $2 billion cost with individual homeowners. Kind of like the 50-50 sidewalk program.

But Enyia offered no specifics when asked where the money would come from at a time when the city is also facing a $1 billion spike in pension payments.

“We have to create a program where we can subsidize homeowners if they take on the cost of updating their lead lines. We could do that through a reallocation of TIF dollars. We could create a rebate program similar to what we did when the city raised property taxes,” she said.

“Those are some shorter-term revenue strategies. But in the long-term, we’ve got to shift to having our own bank where we can actually finance our own infrastructure projects.”

Last year, the Emanuel administration came under fire for failing to notify owners of all 165,000 homes with water meters last summer that a “small subset” of metered homes had tested positive for elevated lead levels.

In June, the city found out that 15 metered homes or homes or 11 percent of those tested had elevated lead levels that exceeded the EPA standard of 15 parts-per-billion. Only those homeowners were notified.

In late October, City Hall found out the figure was 17.2 percent of 51 homeowners.

Then and only then was the decision made to notify the owners of all 165,000 metered homes and offer those homeowners homeowners $60 filtration systems free of charge, while continuing to install meters.

Last year, the City Council prohibited new facilities from storing or handling materials containing more than trace amounts of manganese.

It did not apply to facilities where manganese has been stored for at least a year. But it did prohibit those companies from expanding operations that involve the heavy metal.

Last month, monitoring requirements were strengthened for all bulk solid material facilities and strict new rules were put in place for facilities handling “unpackaged manganese bearing materials.”

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