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Chicago’s building boom endangering the health of vulnerable children

General iron

Southeast Side residents last summer protested in front of scrap-metal recycler
General Iron’s plant in Lincoln Park. The company had announced plans to
move the facility to 116th Street and South Burley Avenue on Chicago’s
Far Southeast Side. | Madison Hopkins/For the Better Government Assocation

The cranes that dot Chicago’s skyline promise improved economic fortunes for the city. But they are obscuring the true cost of the city’s approach to industrial development — the health of Chicago’s most vulnerable children.

Case in point: In 2017, the city rezoned the 760-acre North Branch Industrial Corridor to allow mixed-use development. The change shifted a large scrap metal recycler from Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood to the East Side neighborhood, one of several moves that is transferring industries and their environmental health hazards from the North Side to the Southeast and Southwest sides.

OPINION

As a result, more of Chicago’s dirtiest industry is moving into East Side, South Deering and Little Village, neighborhoods with high percentages of young people. More than 33 percent of the population in East Side and Little Village is under 21. In South Deering, that number is 29 percent. By comparison, just 18 percent of the population in Lincoln Park and Bucktown is under 21.

A recent analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, Southeast Environmental Task Force and other community groups examined the cumulative impact of environmental health hazards facing different Chicago neighborhoods. It looked at things like toxic air pollution (think diesel emissions), lead exposure and locations of hazardous waste sites. It also evaluated factors that make places more vulnerable to harm, such as the number of very young people, poverty and race.

The study found that Chicago has uneven and inequitable exposure to pollution and toxins across its neighborhoods. As a map shows, Chicago has concentrated industry in low-income communities of color. Given the city’s racial history, this fact isn’t shocking. What’s distressing is that the city is still doing so.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tracks pollution data in local communities. The neighborhoods where Chicago is planning to bring more industry already have eye-popping levels of pollutants that are linked with asthma, cancer and developmental delays. Little Village is already at the 99th percentile in the U.S. for levels of diesel emissions and proximity to hazardous waste. It’s at the 98th percentile for air pollution that causes cancer and other respiratory hazards.

East Side’s stats are just as troubling: the 91st percentile for diesel emissions, 90th for hazardous waste, 84th for air pollution that causes cancer, and 85th for air pollution that causes other respiratory harm.

And that’s before you factor in the overlapping hazard of having so many pollutant levels this high.

It’s no wonder that the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Childhood Asthma Surveillance Report shows that children from these communities are hospitalized for asthma three times more frequently than children who live in other parts of Chicago.

Chicago must reform its industrial development process, to take into account the health of the surrounding communities. It should include genuine community input into planning and zoning decisions. And it should ensure that the communities bearing the brunt of the impact also reap the benefit of the jobs created.

Chicago has shown that it can listen to local communities on industrial zoning issues, notably in its decisions to limit petcoke and manganese storage facilities in the Southeast Side.

The decisions about the proposed facilities on the Fisk and Crawford coal plant sites in Pilsen and Little Village are also of note. After the coal plants closed, the city created a Task Force to plan for future uses, which created a set of guiding principles for those two sites that included minimizing pollution and encouraging broad stakeholder involvement.

Paired with implementation of the resulting recommendations, this approach could spare communities “whack-a-mole” battles to address specific kinds of pollution, and have established a model for planning new industrial development.

Unfortunately, many of the recommendations weren’t followed. The city has approved a 1-million square-foot “last mile” shipping warehouse at the Crawford site that will likely bring more heavy truck traffic and diesel air pollution to Little Village. And it looks like a similar facility is in the works for the Fisk site. The result — a raw deal for communities that have already been dealt more than their fair share.

The city needs a wholistic industrial development planning strategy that balances economic advantages with environmental concerns. These concerns should be viewed not as obstacles but opportunities to build a healthier future for our city. We simply can’t afford economic development that shortchanges the health of our kids.

Elizabeth Cisar is senior program officer for environment for the Joyce Foundation.

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