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Biden’s expected environmental policies a breath of fresh air for Chicago area Trump critics

The president-elect has vowed to promote climate change and reverse Trump’s actions. Chicago’s EPA union official predicts a crackdown on polluters. 

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks about climate change and wildfires affecting western states in Wilmington, Delaware, in September.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks about climate change and wildfires affecting western states in Wilmington, Delaware, in September.
Patrick Semansky/AP file

President-elect Joe Biden is expected to reverse dozens of Donald Trump’s environmental policies while emphasizing a crackdown on polluters in Illinois and beyond.

After four years of Trump’s environmental protection rollbacks, an easing of enforcement and favorable policies toward fossil fuel industries, Biden is promising reversals and a clean-energy and climate change agenda. He also is vowing to address so-called environmental justice communities, low-income and minority areas in Chicago and elsewhere that suffer from high levels of pollution.

Those political pledges are welcome news to some of Trump’s local critics who say the president’s focus on promoting economic growth has come at the expense of environmental protection through weakened anti-pollution rules and a letup in enforcement.

“President-elect Biden has clearly signaled he’s going to take some very strong Day One actions on environmental and climate change matters,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago. “Longer term, Trump’s Department of Justice has taken a lot of positions in federal courts that are anti-environmental. I would expect new appointees would take a look at those positions.”

Learner’s group alone has sued the Trump Administration more than 20 times over decisions in clean air and water and other disputes. He’s hopeful that some of these issues will be resolved under Biden, including a fight over clean-air designations in the Chicago area and elsewhere.

The Chicago skyline.
The Chicago skyline.
Colin Boyle/Sun-Times file photo

Biden’s support for clean energy could translate to more federal dollars for Illinois to promote the growing industry, he added. What’s more, Biden has voiced support for Great Lakes initiatives, including an ongoing restoration program that Trump once proposed should be virtually defunded, Learner said.

In addition to policy, environmental law enforcement is expected to get renewed support from Biden, who will appoint new heads for the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice. The new EPA director will put a Chicago administrator in charge who will oversee a multistate region.

An analysis last year showed a substantial decrease in pollution inspections at the Chicago office of the EPA, a regional hub that handles pollution issues in Illinois and five other Midwest states. The trend is continuing in 2020 in part because of the pandemic, said a union official representing EPA workers. Under Trump, EPA also pushed off some pollution enforcement to states. Finally, the agency often relies on polluters’ “self audits.”

“This administration was not even on the map for enforcement,” said Nicole Cantello, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704. The union represents around 1,000 EPA employees across the Midwest.

In a statement, EPA says it continues to enforce pollution oversight but also notes that “the COVID-19 public health emergency may affect facility operations and the availability of key staff, contractors and others involved in the important work of complying with the nation’s environmental protection laws.”

Biden has signaled he will sign a number of executive orders, including on his first day of taking office. Trump has completed or attempted to roll back almost 100 environmental rules, including many related to clean air and water.

“We anticipate executive orders on environmental issues that will be very important and will protect people and the Great Lakes,” said Cantello, an EPA lawyer in Chicago.

For Meleah Geertsma, a Chicago-based senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, EPA’s enforcement muscle can be instrumental in disputes in which local or state authorities fear legal challenges in fights involving polluters. She said she saw less of that EPA muscle during the Trump Administration.

“We hope to see more proactive enforcement,” said Geertsma, who has worked with Southeast Side community groups on a number of pollution concerns.

The City of Chicago and the State of Illinois don’t have the weight that EPA has to stand up to polluters, she said. “What you’d see with a federal enforcer is stronger regulation,” Geertsma said.

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