Industrial polluters would face new hurdles to open under zoning changes proposed by Lightfoot

Asphalt plants and other sources of air pollution would face more scrutiny before they’re allowed to open, but critics say the measure doesn’t go far enough.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s chief sustainability officer cited an asphalt plant that opened directly across from McKinley Park two years ago as an example of an industrial zoning issue that would get more public scrutiny under the mayor’s proposed ordinance.

Mayor Lightfoot’s top environmental adviser cited the opening of MAT Asphalt in McKinley Park as a reason to change city zoning rules.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Industrial polluters would face more hurdles to set up near homes, schools and parks under Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposed change to the city’s zoning law.

The measure follows a promise made by Lightfoot in July to reduce air pollution in the city’s Black and Latino communities and is expected to be introduced at the City Council meeting Wednesday. An amendment to the city’s zoning ordinance would require heavy industrial sources of pollution, like asphalt plants, to undergo more scrutiny, including required public hearings, before they are allowed to open even in designated manufacturing areas of the city.

Specifically, industrial operators would be required to seek what’s called special use permits, which mandate more procedural requirements and approvals and allows for public hearings before city approval.

Community and environmental groups, citing several industrial developments on the South and West Sides, have been pressing Lightfoot to stop sources of air pollution from moving into areas of the city that already suffer from poor air quality.

Southeast Side residents are fighting industrial metal shredder General Iron’s move from Lincoln Park to their community. Little Village activists want the city to halt the development of a Target distribution center that would bring hundreds of diesel trucks to their neighborhood each day. McKinley Park organizers have said the MAT Asphalt plant across from their park should not have been built.

It’s unclear whether city approvals for any of the controversial developments would have turned out differently under the proposed changes. Lightfoot’s top environmental adviser said the asphalt plant, opened in 2018, is an example of a project that would have received more scrutiny under the mayor’s zoning ordinance.

MAT Asphalt is “exactly the type of development we had in mind when we put this ordinance together,” said Angela Tovar, Lighftoot’s chief sustainability officer. “We can no longer rely on these zoning measures to guide where these businesses go.”

The law would also require certain entities, such as daycares and schools, to go through a rigorous review before they’re allowed to locate close to industrial sites, a requirement that provides “better, more proactive planning to mitigate more environmental harm,” Tovar said.

Additionally, no new landfills, incinerators or mining operations would be allowed in the city, though Tovar said there are no current applications to the city for such sites.

Lightfoot announced she would back zoning changes in July, saying the city had to address the issue of polluted communities. Her office also released a report linking poor health in low-income communities of color to the impacts of air pollution. Chicago’s “history of segregation and disinvestment in Black and Latinx communities” was to blame, the report said.

Community groups say the Lightfoot measure doesn’t go far enough.

“Instead of actually fixing what their air report is telling them, they are just trying to do the bare minimum,” said Kim Wasserman, executive director of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization

Tovar said the proposed ordinance is a first step and promised to work with environmental groups on additional laws, such as one recognizing cumulative burdens of neighborhoods already inundated with pollution.

“The changes to the zoning ordinance are a step forward but just a step and more changes are needed,” said Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law who is representing residents opposed to General Iron’s move to the Southeast Side.

The same type of zoning rules Lighfoot proposes, she said, is allowing General Iron to “move from the affluent, mostly white Lincoln Park neighborhood to the heavily burdened, low-income community of color on the Southeast Side.”

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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