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Chicago can make saving the environment a priority

Bringing back the city Department of Environment would help the city do its part to fight climate change.

The old Crawford power plant in Chicago.
Scott Olson/Getty Images file photo

Just as a poll came out this week showing most Americans want to tackle climate change right now, a new report supports something Chicago can do on its own — bringing back its Department of the Environment.

The report by City Hall Inspector General Joe Ferguson documents how the city’s Department of Public Health dropped the ball on enforcing clean air standards. For example, of the facilities that were supposed to be inspected every year, 19% were not inspected at all for three years, Ferguson said.

That’s what happens when one department is handed too many responsibilities.

But this isn’t a matter of, say, Streets and San falling behind in maintaining its trucks. Every day, we are confronted with increasingly dire forecasts of what is going to happen to our planet if we don’t make drastic changes to curb greenhouse gases. Reinstating the Department of Environment after eight years — as Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she wanted to do during her campaign — is one way Chicago can help battle global warming.

To meet Chicago’s laudable commitment to run its public buildings, public schools, colleges and Park District entirely with clean energy by 2025 will require people with expertise, ability and single-minded focus. That’s not to say there are no such people in the Department of Health or elsewhere in city government, but other agencies have many other responsibilities. And retooling where municipal operations get power isn’t enough. The city also needs to get the rest of the city outside of government to conserve energy and use clean, renewable sources.

A revived environmental department would have other responsibilities, of course, such as reducing sewer overflows, getting lead out of drinking water, reducing pollutants and improving recycling. But it also could be the city’s best way to fight the growing climate crisis on the local front.

Chicago could use help from the state Legislature, as well. As we have written before, it’s absolutely critical Springfield enact clean energy legislation as quickly as possible. The Trump administration appears poised to try to upend Illinois’ push for renewable energy, something that can be forestalled only with new energy rules. And the announcement that another Illinois coal plant is closing — the fifth announced in a month — will leave communities and workers in the lurch without the transition benefits they would get under clean energy legislation.

While the Trump administration does such foolhardy things as weaken standards for methane and clean water, as it has done in recent days, Chicago and Illinois need to go in a more sensible direction, one that secures our future rather than endangers it.

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