Pritzker backs air pollution protections in overburdened communities

After being criticized for an approval helping General Iron’s move to the Southeast Side, the governor worked with environmental groups to draft a reform of state law.

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Billowing smoke from General Iron in Lincoln Park obscures the Chicago skyline.

Sources of air pollution would face a more rigorous review under a bill backed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. General Iron’s proposed move from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side is an impetus for the reform.

Annie Costabile/Sun-Times file

Gov. J.B. Pritzker is backing a bill in the General Assembly that would help give residents more power to fight new sources of air pollution.

Pritzker was criticized last year for his administration’s approval of a state permit that provided an important first step for the planned relocation of the General Iron car-shredding operation to the Southeast Side. At the time, the governor said he had little choice under the law and encouraged reforms to the state’s environmental protection act.

A bill introduced Tuesday, written by environmental organizations with input from Pritzker’s aides, would require the state to define “environmental justice” communities, which are often low-income communities of color with multiple sources of pollution, and would add a more rigorous review process when manufacturers or other businesses want to locate or expand operations in one of these areas. 

The new rules would require reviews of cumulative impact of air pollution sources in environmental justice communities when construction permits are requested through the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. The proposed law would require community hearings, with translation services if necessary, before the sources of air pollution get state approval to build, though local zoning laws would still dictate many specific rules as they do with the General Iron example in Chicago. 

“We deserve clean air, water and soil and we deserve a real say in the permitting process,” said Peggy Salazar, a Southeast Side community organizer who opposes the proposed metal-shredding operation in her community. 

Salazar’s group Southeast Environmental Taskforce was among the organizations that provided input for the bill, which is sponsored by state Rep. Sonya Harper, D-Chicago. 

Others, including Kim Wasserman, who leads the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, called the effort a first step.

“Part of the reason this law is required is because of basic deficiencies in the way things work now,” Wasserman said. 

The measure “begins the critical work of giving communities a voice in making major decisions regarding permits for projects that could have a lasting impact on their families and neighbors,” Pritzker said in a statement.

In June of last year, Pritzker’s administration gave General Iron’s owner a permit to build on the Southeast Side even though community groups and some state lawmakers urged the governor to reject the permit application. At the time, the governor’s office issued a statement saying that the administration’s “hands were tied” because of legal limitations. “There is a broader regulatory problem that most severely impacts the health and safety of low-income communities, especially those of color,” a Pritzker spokeswoman said then.

The bill will likely face challenges from business groups. For one, the bill calls for a $200,000 fee for businesses seeking construction permits from the state in environmental justice communities. 

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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