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Amid General Iron fight, Lightfoot explores ordinance on cumulative pollution

Other big cities have addressed the dilemma of environmental burdens in poor communities of color.

The relocation of General Iron to the Southeast Side has been fought by activists who say that the city also needs to change its zoning and land-use policies.
The relocation of General Iron to the Southeast Side has been fought by activists who say that the city also needs to change its zoning and land-use policies.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times, Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The city’s health department is exploring whether Chicago can follow Los Angeles, Minneapolis and other cities to address the impact of cumulative pollution on residents when industrial operations seek to open in already burdened low-income communities of color.

The idea has been discussed between environmental groups and City Hall in the past but took on new urgency last week when Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she was halting the review of a metal-shredding operation on the Southeast Side and also announced she was ordering her staff to a propose a “cumulative impact” ordinance by the end of the year.

“The ordinance would require an assessment of the additional environmental impact of an industrial business operation on the surrounding community when reviewing a permit application,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “We are also exploring additional policy steps the City can take to protect our most vulnerable communities from pollution as this ordinance is being developed.”

Lightfoot made her comments after agreeing to a request from President Joe Biden’s new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Michael Regan, that the relocation of General Iron’s car-shredding operations to the Southeast Side needed more study to assure that the facility won’t threaten the health of local residents.

The mayor asked the health department to work on a possible ordinance with her Chief Sustainability Officer Angela Tovar, who told the Sun-Times last September that a cumulative impact measure was a goal. So far, Lightfoot has had a rocky start with environmental policy as an air pollution ordinance she introduced faced opposition from some aldermen and resulted in what environmental groups called a weak law that does not do enough to improve air quality. The city’s zoning and land-use policies are also the subject of a federal civil rights investigation related to the General Iron move.

Giving local environmental legislation teeth is key to any measure Chicago may consider, said Ana Baptista, an assistant professor at the New School in New York who has studied local environmental laws.

In Newark, for instance, there are calls to strengthen its environmental ordinance. Cincinnati was one of the first cities to pass what Baptista called an ambitious law but it lacked the funding or staffing to implement it, she said.

In a statement city health officials said they are reviewing other laws across the country as well as Baptista’s research. Like Chicago, other industrial cities have wrestled with the issues of residents living in heavily polluted areas. In a letter to Lightfoot, Regan ticked off multiple environmental issues facing Southeast Side residents.

“The legacy of environmental racism is going to require affirmative and transformative policies from the city,” Baptista said. “Unless you put an ordinance in place or a policy in place, those conditions will continue to be exacerbated.”

Looking at other cities’ efforts can help inform the process, she added.

“There’s a menu of options the city of Chicago can look at to build their own program,” Baptista said.

Local activists said the city will need to work with them to help draft a measure.

“The city really has to tap into the community’s expertise,” said Gina Ramirez, a Southeast Side community organizer opposed to the General Iron relocation. “We just want to be part of the process.”

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