Pollution ‘sacrifice zones’ must end, groups say in pushing new law

A coalition of environmental and social justice organizations say they will write a proposed law to fight the addition of polluting businesses in already stressed communities.

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Community members fought a junked-car shredding operation on the Southeast Side, arguing that it added pollution to an already burdened area.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A coalition of environmental, health and social justice groups are pushing Mayor Lori Lightfoot to stop adding warehouses and other polluting businesses to already environmentally burdened “sacrifice zones” and said they would draft a proposed ordinance to seek changes in Chicago’s land use and zoning practices.

The newly formed Coalition to End Sacrifice Zones said Wednesday that they cannot wait for a previously promised ordinance from the Lightfoot administration that would address the cumulative pollution burden Black and Brown communities on the city’s South and West sides face. A year ago, the mayor said she would develop a plan that would set up tougher environmental reviews around industrial operations. Los Angeles and Minneapolis are among cities with such laws.

Leaders from across the city’s most polluted areas said they are tired of waiting for City Hall and announced that they would engage their communities in coming months to propose a new law. An air pollution analysis published by the Sun-Times this week showed further evidence that the city’s residents who live near industrial areas, highways and busy roads, especially on the South and West sides, are exposed to a greater amount of pollution than other areas.

“It’s unfair for our community to be poisoned every single day for the benefit of industry instead of looking at the public health implications that these industries bring,” said Cheryl Johnson, executive director of the South Side organization People for Community Recovery. “We want equal environmental protection just like any other community in this city.”

Johnson’s group was founded by her mother Hazel Johnson more than 40 years ago to protest the toxic pollution surrounding Chicago Housing Authority’s Altgeld Gardens. That activism led to an ongoing massive federal cleanup of almost 90 acres of hazardous contamination on the South Side and a federal law, the Environmental Justice Act of 1992, that aimed to stop adding pollution to low-income areas, often communities of color.

More policy changes at the local level need to be in place to reverse decades of discrimination, including redlining practices of the past, organizers say.

“Our communities of sacrifice zones were not created by chance. They are a direct result of segregation and environmentally racist policies that put industries and business over our health and future,” said Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

Wasserman’s organization has highlighted the addition of diesel truck traffic and resulting pollution to the city’s Southwest Side as large warehouse developments have been on the rise.

Other environmental organizations joining the coalition include Southeast Environmental Task Force, which fought a proposed junked-car shredding operation for East Side, and Neighbors for Environmental Justice, which has been in a yearslong fight over an asphalt plant that operates across from McKinley Park.

Blacks in Green, Grassroots Collaborative, Collaborative for Health Equity Cook County and Warehouse Workers for Justice are also members of the group.

In a statement, the city said Lightfoot “remains committed” to passing a cumulative impact ordinance and welcomes coordination with the new coalition.

“This ordinance is critical to alleviating the burden of environmental harm experienced by Black, Brown and low-income communities that are bisected by major highways and/or in close proximity to high volumes of heavy industry,” the statement said.

The city recently announced a major study of pollution impact citywide that will be completed by next year.

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

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