Does Mayor Lightfoot’s Air Quality Plan Go Far Enough?

Chicago’s hot and humid summer days haven’t just been sticky; the region has seen a string of air quality alerts due to elevated ozone levels.

A new report on air quality out Monday from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration finds that certain kinds of air pollution – like ozone and particulate matter – are “fairly uniform across the city,” while others, like diesel particulate matter, are more prevalent in areas with a lot of traffic and industry – in particular, neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides.

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“These are unfortunately generally also in the places where there are low income and minority populations who also are most at risk, whether they are young, old, asthmatic or have other preexisting conditions,” said Susan Mudd of the Environmental Law and Policy Center of the report’s findings. “The worst air quality tends to be where the lowest income minority populations are and are suffering the most, both generally and with COVID-19.”

This is the fourth summer the ELPC has tracked small particulate matter in Chicago, and Mudd said she’s pleased the Lightfoot administration has come out with an agenda to address it.

Rules that took effect in June updated city rules for large recycling facilities, requiring increased noise and air monitoring.

In September, the Lightfoot administration plans to introduce an ordinance that, according to a press release, will “amend where manufacturing and other polluting sites may be located throughout the city. These changes will ensure that the economic activity provided by industrial and manufacturing uses will remain sufficiently separated from residences and small businesses.”

Lightfoot will also create an environmental equity working group.

But Mudd says there is more the city can do – including enforcing rules already in place that restrict diesel vehicles from idling and that require the city to use cleaner equipment on its own projects if they cost $2 million or more. She said Chicago should also follow through on promises to convert the CTA bus fleet from diesel to zero-emission electric buses.

Gina Ramirez with the Natural Resources Defense Council is even more dubious.

Ramirez said plans by RMG-owned and operated metal scrapper General Iron to move from primarily White and wealthy Lincoln Park to the primary Black and Latino Southeast Side (where she lives) is an example of systemic racism.

“And this report isn’t solving that issue, which is a really huge issue … So we need a moratorium on new industrial facilities during the pandemic. We need a ban on harmful chemicals and facilities that are overburdening the Southeast Side and I feel like the report is doing a lot of talking the talk but not walking the walk. And that’s what we need to protect the health of communities like Little Village, McKinley Park and the Southeast Side,” Ramirez said. “While this report is an openness to action if they don’t deny the permits for General Iron or continue logistics warehouses to concentrate on the South and West sides of Chicago, then this report is really not needed.”

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency last month granted General Iron a permit for its new facility, despite the opposition of environmental advocates and some lawmakers.

In a statement Monday night, RMG referenced that permit.

“In order to issue a construction permit last month to an affiliate of Reserve Management Group (RMG) to expand their decades-long Southeast Side operation by building a new metal recycling facility, the IEPA had to determine that RMG’s application met all existing air quality standards, and even then, the IEPA added conditions to ensure that the facility protects public health and the environment,” RMB spokesman Randall Samborn said. “RMG will be accountable to meeting the permit’s stringent conditions.”

General Iron must also file a permit application with the city of Chicago before it can make its planned move.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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