Even as Mayor Rahm Emanuel has criticized state and federal officials for rolling back environmental protections and played up his own green credentials, City Hall has cut back sharply on environmental oversight.
That’s according to an analysis of city data by the Better Government Association and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism that found:
- The number of citations the city of Chicago has issued for air, water and other pollution violations is down sharply since 2012, Emanuel’s first full year as mayor. Under Emanuel, City Hall issued about 3,500 environmental citations in that period — fewer than one-third the approximately 11,200 given during the previous seven years, nearly all of that under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.
- The size of the city’s environmental inspection staff was cut almost in half during Emanuel’s tenure, and the number of yearly inspections fell by more than half as a result of budget cuts and attrition.
- The numbers of inspections of hazardous materials plummeted by more than 90 percent between 2010 and 2018, of air quality plunged nearly 70 percent and of solid waste by more than 60 percent.
- The declines in inspections and enforcement actions coincided with Emanuel’s decision soon after taking office in 2011 to abolish the city’s Department of Environment, as well as shutting down a city hotline for pollution complaints. City residents instead were told to direct environmental concerns to the city’s catch-all 311 non-emergency call service, which also deals with complaints about garbage service, rodents, potholes and more.
After years of environmental staff cuts, Emanuel reversed course in his 2018 budget. Not mentioning the city’s own cuts while he was mayor, his office boasted: “Mayor Emanuel’s expansion of environmental protection staff comes at the same time state and federal officials have rolled back efforts to protect residents from pollution.”
City officials say enforcement is just part of Emanuel’s environmental agenda and that he deserves credit for other efforts to prevent pollution, for instance, by promoting clean energy and greater use of monitors to detect air pollution.
“It would be unfair to look at these numbers as our only commitment to the environment,” says Dr. Julie Morita, Emanuel’s public health commissioner.
To cut costs, Emanuel’s first city budget, for 2012, did away with the Department of Environment, which Daley created. The mayor gave its responsibilities for environmental permitting and enforcement primarily to the Department of Public Health, saying the previous setup detracted from a green focus throughout city government.
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Cheryl Johnson, a South Side environmental activist, is critical of Emanuel’s environmental efforts, saying, “I would give him a D-minus for enforcement.”
On the Far South Side around the Altgeld Gardens public housing complex, where Johnson lives and works, there are “No dumping” signs all over, and the air is thick with the smells of chemicals, garbage and sewage. The once-flat landscape is dotted with hills that were once active landfills. The area, now a magnet for illegal dumping, is one of the most environmentally burdened neighborhoods in the city.
Johnson, executive director of People for Community Recovery, says shutting down the environment department sent a message that people are on their own to fight pollution. To address foul smells from a nearby sewage-treatment plant, residents have bypassed the city in recent years, instead complaining to the operator, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.
“You get tired of beating on a dead horse,” says Johnson, who says the strategy has gotten better results.
In Pilsen, people have complained for years about dust from a car-shredding operation run by Sims Metal Management.
In 2012, Emanuel’s inspectors cited the business for two air-quality violations but didn’t assess any fines. This past December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded a two-year investigation of the Sims facility with a fine of $225,000 for air-quality violations.
While the EPA was looking at Sims, records show that city inspectors visited the site more than a dozen times, including at least five visits that followed complaints. But city inspectors didn’t find any violations, records show, concluding on one occasion that any smells “were not excessive or pungent.”
Sims says the odor complaints from last year were “unsubstantiated” and separate from the EPA case, and that “we diligently work with regulators to ensure that we are fully current with federal, state and local regulations.”
According to Morita, the recent additions to the inspection staff came because “we identified that need.” She also points to the department’s work in recent years to strengthen city rules on handling harmful materials such as manganese and petroleum coke that posed a health threat on the Southeast Side.
The BGA-Medill analysis was based on the health department’s environmental violations database, which includes enforcement actions by the old Department of Environment.
In 2010, the old environment department was budgeted for an 18-member staff to handle permits and inspections and carried out 11,571 inspections that year.
By 2014, the budgeted headcount of the permit and inspections team, by this time part of the health department, had been cut to just nine. That shrunken squad did 5,907 environmental inspections.
The budget for the inspections staff grew to 23 by 2018 after the additions. Still, the number of inspections last year was 5,469 — fewer than there’d been in 2014, when the staff was nearly one-third the size.
One cut that’s gotten a particularly bad reception has been the elimination of the environmental hotline.
“It’s hard to explain to a 311 operator who is dealing with a situation they are totally unfamiliar with,” says Peggy Salazar, director of a group called the Southeast Environmental Task Force.
Records show 311 operators sometimes rout pollution complaints to city departments that don’t handle them. For instance, there have been air-pollution complaints about the Three Brothers industrial laundry, in the 2600 block of West 19th Street in Pilsen, that got routed to the buildings department. But the buildings department doesn’t enforce outdoor air-quality issues.
City records show there were more than 600 complaints to 311 about Three Brothers Laundry in 2017, many about chemical smells and other foul odors.
Marguerita and Mark Breihan live across an alley from Three Brothers. Marguerita Breihan says the smells sometimes are so bad they’ve made her vomit. A neighbor, Bonfilio Reyes, says that when it’s bad, his face swells, he gets headaches and he has to leave his house.
Records show city inspectors have visited the laundry at least 30 times since 2016 as a result of hundreds of complaints but reported not smelling anything unusual and found no air-quality violations.
Mark Breihan says one city official asked whether he’d considered moving.
In December, U.S. EPA officials inspected Three Brothers following air-quality complaints. That review continues.
“It’s just basic soap,” Nayan Patel, Three Brothers’ general manager, says of the odor.
But the EPA inspection found that Three Brothers began a dry-cleaning operation last summer that used the chemical perchloroethylene. Exposure to the chemical, known as PCE, can cause headaches, nausea and irritation and in extreme cases can pose a cancer risk, according to U.S. health officials.
Nearly all of the big field of candidates running to succeed Emanuel as mayor have said they want to toughen environmental oversight. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, former Chicago Police Board President Lori Lightfoot and community activist Amara Enyia have called for restoring an environment department.
Contributing: Mary Hall