Chicago Officials Seek Community Input on Environmental Issues Facing Neighborhoods

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

The city of Chicago is working with local environmental justice groups to gather community input for a report covering the disproportionate, wide-ranging impact that environmental pollution has on residents in various neighborhoods.

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“The goal here is for us to think about how the cumulative impact data can help change policy and operations across city departments,” said Angela Tovar, the city’s chief sustainability officer.

The Cumulative Impact Assessment report is expected to include a map of neighborhoods experiencing the most environmental stressors, plus policy change recommendations and an environmental justice action plan.

Chicago Department of Public Health Managing Deputy Commissioner Megan Cunningham said that identifying neighborhoods that experience the greatest combined impact of environmental exposure, along with health and social stressors, is important so the city knows which areas might require additional protections and investment when it comes to decisions related to zoning, permits and planning.

Rates of health conditions that are caused by environmental conditions or that make people more sensitive to the effects of pollution are often higher in Black and Latino communities, such as asthma and heart disease, Cunningham said.

Events are planned in the next month for community members to voice concerns and provide feedback.

CDPH and the Office of Climate & Environmental Equity have been leading efforts on the initiative since last year. A completed report is expected to be published and presented to Mayor Brandon Johnson in the fall.

This work comes as activists from local environmental justice groups, who have been working jointly with the city in the creation of the report, continue to raise awareness on environmental issues disproportionately affecting Black and Latino residents in the city.

Some of those issues include efforts to prevent the parent company of General Iron from operating a metal shredding and recycling operation on the Southeast Side; calls for more accountability following a watchdog report about a botched smokestack implosion in Little Village; and the ongoing fight for environmental justice in Altgeld Gardens, which has been historically surrounded by toxic industrial and waste sites, giving it the nickname “Toxic Donut.”

“These are decades-long campaigns and issues that have been happening in the city that need to be resolved,” said Olga Bautista, executive director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force. She serves as co-chair of the project management team for the report.

Many of the local environmental justice groups participating in the Cumulative Impact Assessment report have been vocal in their criticisms of the city’s approach to addressing various environmental issues.

The group Neighbors for Environmental Justice released an environmental enforcement report in February that, in part, criticizes CDPH and claims the department engages in “years-long negotiations with high profile polluters then settles for small fines and negligible consequences.”

CDPH is set to present to the City Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy on Wednesday about the status of the report.

Cunningham said working with community environmental groups on the report means sitting together at the table and having hard conversations to get beyond their “historic adversarial relationship.”

“We have really had to recognize and grapple with the role that our city, and the role that our department has played in creating, and in some cases, continuing to perpetuate those harms,” Cunningham said, speaking to what she described as the systemic and disproportionate burden that Black and Latino communities experience from industrial development.

The next community input event for the assessment report will take place 6 p.m. Wednesday at Corliss High School in Pullman.

You can find more information about upcoming community input events and submitting public comments on the draft environmental justice action plan here.

Contact Eunice Alpasan: @eunicealpasan | 773-509-5362 | [email protected]

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