City’s new chief sustainability officer ‘committed to environmental justice’

Angela Tovar, who grew up on the Southeast Side, was hired to be Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s top environmental officer.

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Angela Tovar, Chicago’s chief sustainability officer

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Angela Tovar, an urban planner and Chicago native, was named Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s top environmental officer Thursday.

After a nine-month search, Lightfoot announced Tovar, 40, as the city’s new chief sustainability officer. Her job is to help steer Lightfoot’s policy on environmental protection and climate change in addition to being a liaison between City Hall and community organizations in Chicago’s most polluted areas. 

Lightfoot vowed during her run for mayor to reinstate the city’s Department of Environment, which former Mayor Rahm Emanuel eliminated to save money. Once in office, Lightfoot said that a more than $800 million budget deficit forced her to scale back her plans but pledged to hire someone to build an office of environment and sustainability. Tovar will be paid $120,000 a year, a Lightfoot spokeswoman said. 

In an interview, Tovar vowed to address issues in environmental justice communities, low-income African-American and Latino neighborhoods that are “overburdened” with a disproportionate amount of pollution. Across the city, that’s largely the South and West sides. She said she’ll also focus on how climate change affects these same communities. 

Having grown up on the heavily industrial Southeast Side, once home to multiple steel plants, Tovar said she’s seen firsthand how air pollution and other environmental hazards affect residents. 

“I lived through it and that’s what really shaped who I am today,” Tovar said. “I am definitely committed to environmental justice because of that experience.”

She said she still has relatives and friends living on the Southeast Side, which has endured contamination from petroleum coke and manganese operations in recent years. Currently, community groups there are fighting the planned move of metal-shredding operator General Iron from Lincoln Park to the community. 

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Activists for years have called for environmental justice reforms in Chicago. Some organizers have questioned whether one person will have sufficient power to affect change.

“I’m hopeful but I’m also realistic, and it is only one person,” said Peggy Salazar, director of the community group Southeast Environmental Task Force. “I am hopeful because she knows our community. She understands our plight much better than anyone else would. But only time will tell. How much power will she be given? Will they listen to her?” 

Additionally, Tovar will oversee efforts to move the city toward clean power sources, such as wind and solar.

Tovar was most recently a program manager for Cook County where she said she worked on sustainability and other climate and environmental issues. She worked most of the past decade at two organizations in New York focused on community development and sustainability. 

Tovar, who begins work June 29, will report to Lightfoot policy chief Dan Lurie. 

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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