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Key Chicago alderman, two mayoral finalists want a separate environmental agency

“Merging health and the environment seemed like a good idea at the time, but it didn’t work out,” said Ald. George Cardenas, head of the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Health and Environmental Protection. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Both Chicago mayoral candidates and a growing number of city council members are calling for bringing back a stand-alone city department to handle environmental issues more than seven years after Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s disbanded the city’s Department of Environment.

That follows a Better Government Association investigation published by the Chicago Sun-Times last month that found there was a sharp drop in the number of environmental enforcement actions taken by the city since Emanuel eliminated the environment department in 2012 and shifted its responsibilities to the health department and other city agencies.

“Merging health and the environment seemed like a good idea at the time, but it didn’t work out,” said Ald. George Cardenas (12th), an Emanuel ally and head of the council’s Committee on Health and Environmental Protection.

Citing the BGA investigation, Cardenas is proposing an ordinance to reverse the changes imposed by Emanuel, who leaves office in May.

Both candidates in the April 2 mayoral runoff to succeed Emanuel said they would re-establish an environment department.

“I don’t know why, given the real challenges of climate change and water and air-quality issues in our city, the Department of Environment was eliminated, but it surely needs to be restored,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who faces Lori Lightfoot in the mayoral runoff.

Lightfoot, an attorney and former federal prosecutor, made a similar pledge: “When you get rid of a Department of Environment, nobody takes ownership of a range of environmental issues.”

The BGA analysis found that the city’s environmental enforcement plummeted during Emanuel’s two terms, with regulators writing fewer than one-third the number of citations for polluters than during a comparable period under former Mayor Richard M. Daley. And the number of environmental inspections dropped by more than half under Emanuel due to a depleted inspector corps.

“Someone dropped the ball,” Cardenas said.

His proposed ordinance is contingent on the city finding enough funding to operate an environment department. He plans to hold council hearings in May to consider the measure.

The move by Cardenas comes weeks after a February city election in which he narrowly avoided a runoff. He faced criticism that he has turned his back on environmental issues in his Southwest Side ward.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said he has asked Cardenas and other aldermen about bringing back the department for years, but that the idea didn’t go anywhere because of Emanuel’s opposition.

“The mayor is proud of his administration’s environmental record,” Emanuel spokesman Matt McGrath said. “It was important to the mayor that environmental protection be embraced by all city departments.”

Brett Chase reports for the Better Government Association.