Noting health problems plaguing low-income Black and Latino neighborhoods, city officials said Saturday that Mayor Lori Lightfoot will push a zoning reform ordinance aimed at reducing air pollution in residential areas surrounded by heavy industry.
The political promise was immediately met with skepticism from Southeast Side residents protesting the planned move of industrial metal shredder General Iron to their community. If Lightfoot is serious about protecting neighbors, start by blocking General Iron from moving to East Side, residents said during a virtual town hall related to the company’s move.
“I have seen firsthand the environmental impact pollution has had on our community members,” said Jocelyn Rangel, a registered nurse and lifelong resident of the area. Pollution has taken a toll on residents who suffer from asthma and other health problems, she said.
The Southeast Side already houses a number of heavy industrial operations and cannot tolerate more, speakers at the town hall said.
“This neighborhood is already suffering from too much air pollution and ill health,” said Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law who is representing Southeast Side community groups.
City officials said they’ll work with environmental groups to draft a proposed ordinance to change local zoning laws for manufacturing and other potential pollution sources near neighborhoods, and improve Chicago’s air quality in communities that have a greater share of dirty air than other parts of the city.
“Our low-income communities and our communities of color are disproportionately impacted by pollution,” Angela Tovar, Lightfoot’s chief sustainability officer, said during the town hall.
An eight-page report released by the mayor’s office noted that “communities with low socioeconomic status and high rates of chronic health conditions are especially vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution.”
The report points to Chicago’s “history of segregation and disinvestment in Black and Latinx communities” that contributes to heavy pollution and poor health.
“Some communities have rates of poverty, cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that are 10 times greater than others,” the report said. “Structural racism and economic hardship contribute to this gap, making it more likely for certain people to live in polluted communities and less likely to have access to health care.”
Low-income Black and Latino communities have also been hit hard by COVID-19, though the city report doesn’t mention the pandemic.
The mayor is promising to overhaul rules related to industrial sites that create air pollution and suggested that cumulative environmental burdens in communities that bear the brunt of the city’s pollution should be analyzed.
A map in the report illustrating air pollution combined with socioeconomic and health problems, shows a disproportionate impact on the South and West sides of Chicago, which experience a greater amount of air pollution than other parts of the city. The map mirrored findings from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which found in 2018 that Chicago’s South and West sides are hardest hit by pollution.
The new report and promise of reform comes as the city will consider permits that will be needed for General Iron to operate at its future home on the Southeast Side. The company, which shreds cars and other scrap metals, plans to move from its longtime home in Lincoln Park to the Latino-majority East Side neighborhood, which the city acknowledges has plenty of air pollution.
Several speakers at Saturday’s town hall called the move “environmental racism.”
Community and environmental groups say such operations should not be anywhere near residential areas. Lincoln Park neighbors have long complained about the company’s current operation, and the city, under Lightfoot, has cited the business numerous times for violations of pollution and nuisance laws.
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.