City must do a better job holding polluters accountable for air quality violations

Making sure Chicagoans in every corner of the city can breathe clean air shouldn’t be difficult.

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An aerial view of Pullman Innovations, a company located at 2701 E. 100th St. in the Southeast Side that manufactures and ships vegetable oil, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. The Chicago Department of Public Health ticketed Pullman Innovations multiple times with code violations. | Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

Time and again, it seems, we’re finding out that City Hall fell down on the job when it comes to health-related environmental issues and keeping our air and drinking water safe.

There’s the snail’s pace in replacing lead water service connections, a long-standing problem that, as this Editorial Board has noted, other cities have dealt with more swiftly. Then, there’s the fumbling of the 2020 Crawford coal plant smokestack implosion that left Little Village covered in a cloud of dust.

Now, as the Sun-Times’s Brett Chase reported in Sunday’s edition, businesses cited by the city for air pollution violations can often spend at least a year going through City Hall’s administrative process, only to have the citations dropped or the fines reduced. Chase found some businesses were given a pass on additional tickets for new violations — likely polluting all the while — as they negotiated existing violations with Chicago officials.



‘People feel defeated’

The city’s primary air pollution law carries maximum fines of $10,000 for a first offense and up to $20,000 for subsequent violations. Major violations can bring fines as high as $50,000. 

But those numbers are only as punitive as the city’s ability — or desire — to enforce them.

The city’s public health department issued 69 air pollution citations from 2018 through 2022, but dropped 39 of them.

For instance, residents near Pullman Innovations — a plant at 100th Street and Torrence Avenue that turns vegetable oil into ingredients used for animal feed — complained about the rotting corpse-like stench coming from the Southeast Side processor.

The city, in response, hit the plant with more than a dozen citations accusing the company of air pollution and being a nuisance.

But after two years, Pullman Innovations agreed to pay just $12,000 in fines. The company didn’t have to admit to the air pollution charges and weren’t required to address the noxious odors that were the subject of residents’ complaints.

“People feel defeated,” Marie Collins-Wright, who lives near the plant, said of the city’s weak-handed resolution of the problem.

Pullman’s punishment was a relative slap on the wrist. And the city’s message to the residents regarding the smells — essentially “suck it up, and live with it” — is all the more insulting given industries have been polluting the Southeast and Far South Side, in one way or another, for better than a century.

Better enforcement needed

Among the companies that in recent years got the city to drop air pollution citations were metal scrappers Sims Metal Management in Pilsen; General Iron, which operated for decades in Lincoln Park; and Reliable Asphalt in Austin.

Of course, a company that’s found at fault in one instance is not automatically at fault in another.

“Where it might appear that [the health department] chose to knock down or drop tickets, this was in fact a determination that the counts were duplicative and based on the same underlying incident,” the city health department said in a written statement. “We could not pursue separate penalties for each violation.”

Perhaps. But when the same companies keep surfacing time and again, and residents are continually subjected to noxious fumes and other airborne problems, the system that’s supposed to police the problem naturally comes into question.

“Lax enforcement and low penalties have been and continue to be a key part of how polluters escape responsibility for dirtying the air in Chicago’s low-income communities of color,” says Meleah Geertsma, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group.

It’s yet another reason, in our view, for Chicago to bring back a full-fledged Department of Environment with strong enforcement power.

Tackling quality of life issues in a big city is a tough job, and it can take years to move the needle in a positive direction. Want to bring back neglected neighborhoods on the South and West Side, improve public schools, substantially reduce crime? Well, buckle up for a long, difficult ride.

But it shouldn’t be so hard to crack down and make polluters clean up their act, so Chicagoans in every corner of the city can breathe clean air.

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