Chicago, HUD settle environmental racism case as Lori Lightfoot leaves office

City departments, including those involved with planning and zoning, will be required to produce an “environmental justice action plan” by Sept. 1.

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Activists protest the planned relocation of a scrap metal operation from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side at a rally near Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s home in 2021.

Activists protest the planned relocation of a scrap metal operation from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side at a rally near Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s home in 2021.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Sun-Times file

In one of her last acts before leaving office, Mayor Lori Lightfoot backed down from her previous tough stance and agreed to a deal Friday to settle an investigation by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that found City Hall effectively has engaged for years in environmental racism.

Under the three-year, binding agreement with the Biden administration, Lightfoot pledged City Hall will reform its planning, zoning and land-use practices.

That follows a HUD investigation that determined the city of Chicago discriminates against its residents by helping arrange for polluting businesses to move to low-income communities of color such as the Southeast Side sometimes from wealthier, heavily white communities including Lincoln Park.

The “voluntary compliance agreement” is the result of a civil rights complaint over a Southeast Side scrap-metal operation. That complaint by community groups led to the HUD investigation.

Last year, HUD investigators accused the city of intentionally steering polluters to neighborhoods already overburdened with pollution and threatened to withhold tens of millions of dollars a year in federal funding if the city doesn’t change its practices.

City departments — including those involved with planning and zoning, development, transportation, buildings and housing — will be required to produce an “environmental justice action plan” by Sept. 1 outlining how City Hall will take steps to protect neighborhoods from “burdens associated with intensive industrial and transportation uses.”

Environmental justice is broadly defined as protecting low-income communities suffering from poor air quality and other health hazards associated with being inundated with a disproportionate level of pollution. It recognizes that these areas historically have felt the brunt of dirty industry.

Mayor Lori Lighfoot, who pledged that the city will complete a citywide assessment of environmental and health impacts on neighborhoods that already have poor air quality and other pollution and that the findings from the research will be used to craft reforms.

Mayor Lori Lighfoot pledged that the city will complete a citywide assessment of environmental and health impacts on neighborhoods that already have poor air quality and other pollution and that the findings from the research will be used to craft reforms.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Lightfoot, who had revealed some of the details in an executive order Wednesday, also pledged that the city will complete a citywide assessment of environmental and health impacts on neighborhoods that already have poor air quality and other pollution and that the findings from the research will be used to craft reforms.

The aim of that assessment is to “describe how environmental burdens, health conditions and social stressors vary across Chicago and identify neighborhoods that experience the greatest cumulative impacts” from pollution, according to the agreement.

The pact also requires the city to engage with people in affected communities with a goal of introducing an ordinance that will have to be approved by Chicago City Council.

“Chicago is listening to the long-standing concerns voiced by environmental justice organizations and community members who have described how intensive industrial operations and commercial transportation affect their neighborhoods, health and quality of life,” Lightfoot said in a written statement related to her executive order.

HUD will monitor progress made by the city, and it will be up to incoming Mayor Brandon Johnson to see that the efforts continue to address the promised reforms.

“I will always be steadfast in my commitment to advancing environmental justice and improving the health of our residents and communities,” Johnson said earlier this week.

Central to a complaint from three South Side organizations in 2020 was the planned relocation of the General Iron car- and metal-shredding operation from Lincoln Park to East 116th Street along the Calumet River.

The organizations complaining to HUD said neighborhood residents’ civil rights were being violated by the move, which shifted a polluting nuisance in a mostly white, affluent neighborhood to a predominantly Latino community area surrounded by majority-Black neighborhoods.

Lightfoot’s administration reached a deal with General Iron and new owner Reserve Management Group that laid out a timeline for shutting down the scrap-metal business and relocating it but didn’t insist on any benefits from the company for the Southeast Side community in that agreement. She ultimately denied the permit for the business, which Reserve Management is appealing.

In the future, planning and zoning decisions will take into account potential pollution to overburdened communities, and an environmental justice project manager will oversee that process, under the agreement with HUD.

Members of groups that filed the complaint with HUD lauded the pact.

Cheryl Johnson, executive director of People for Community Recovery, called the agreement “a new roadmap to fight back against environmental racism.”

“We’re taking our neighborhoods back from polluters,” said Olga Bautista, executive director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force.

HUD has reached similar agreements with other cities over discriminatory practices, though many for different reasons.

HUD still has an ongoing but separate civil rights investigation related to the power that Chicago City Council members wield to prevent low-income housing in their wards.

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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