How the return of the Department of Environment could benefit South Side Neighborhoods
An analysis published by the The Natural Resources Defense Council suggests that Chicago’s West and South Side neighborhoods have been impacted the most by environmental hazards. The return of the Department of Environment could remedy those effects; however, it is still unclear how its return will benefit communities of color.
In a recent press release Mayor Lori Lightfoot mapped her nine-point environmental plan for the city. On the top of her list was the reinstatement of the Department of Environment. Since the press release, the committee on Health and Environmental Protection has scheduled a hearing for early October to discuss the department.
In January 2012, just one year into his stint as city mayor, Rahm Emanuel dismantled the Department of Environment and sprawled its responsibilities mainly to the Department of Public Health and Department of Planning and Development.
According to an investigation published by the Better Government Association this year, air quality inspections dropped by 70 percent and hazardous material inspections fell by 90 percent since the removal of the department of environment. Environmental activists have also blamed city planners under the Emmanual administration for allowing polluting business such as coal plants and metal shredders to move into brown and black communities that are already exposed to pollutants.
“By not having a Department of Environment we’ve seen the impact of industry polluting more, industry taking advantage of having less inspectors,” Executive Director of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), Kimberly Wasserman said “It's in our neighborhood that the coal power plants stood for decades. It's in our neighborhood that these warehouses are being built and proposed. And we're the ones feeling the impact of it.”
Also part of Lightfoot’s environmental plan is the creation of a brownfield initiative that would remediate lands that have been exposed to soil pollution. Brownfield initiatives clean up lands exposed to pollutants or hazardous materials and makes the land suitable for development and business investment. Lightfoot’s plan will also focus on environmental justice in low-income communities and communities of color.
Despite the increasing talks by Lightfoot and and the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection about reviving the department not much has been said about the role it’s reinstatement would have on South Side communities that have historically been affected the most by climate change and pollution.
“Will they just be looking at policy related issues and try to make policy change?” said Cheryl Johnson, executive director of People of Community Recovery, an organization founded by environmental activist, Hazel Johnson. “Or are they going to be looking and monitoring industries in these areas? Are they going to look at education for the community around environmental issues or will they be talking about emergency preparedness from a community perspective?”
According to Johnson, should the Department of Environment return, one vital thing the city can do to remedy its neglect of communities of color is a land remediation of polluted areas. For her, cleaning up contaminated lands would enable the creation of the community gardens and also attract future development to the area.
Land remediation has been done before in several South Side communities by private organizations. In 2014, Little Village residents along with members of LVEJO transformed a lot of land that had been used for illegal oil dumping and began terraforming and planting organic fruits and vegetables. And eventually the lot was converted into Semillas de Justicia (Seeds of Justice) Community garden. Today, the park is a community garden that grows legumes and fruits for the community, it also hosts weekly dinners, bike repair workshops and art class for children that are meant to unite the community.
Semillas de Justicia Community garden in Little Village was organized by LVEJO and Troy Street Residents. Today the Garden grows food, raises chickens, and host community events.
“We shouldn't be building more warehouses, we shouldn't be building bigger and bigger industrial farms, we should be growing our food locally. We should be buying our things locally.” said Wasserman.
Another key service that could benefit residents is the re-introduction of an environmental specific hotline. Under the previous Department of Environment, the hotline was used for residents to voice concerns about unpleasant smells or potential water contamination. After the removal of the department, the hotline was removed and callers were instead directed to the general 311 call center.
According to Wasserman, since the removal of the hotline people concerned about local factories releasing pollutants or illegal dumping of waste no longer know who to call to resolve their issues, they instead having been calling environmental organizations. After fielding calls about pollutants LVEJO tries to contact the proper city department.
“Community members don't know who to call when there's an issue in their neighborhood in regard to the environment,” said Wasserman about the removal of the environmental hotline, “they don't know what department to reach out to because that department isn't there anymore.”
Many are hopeful that the return will bring positive change to the city's much affected industrial corridor. However, with limited information many are left to speculate as to what the department will do and how it will be run.
According to Wasserman whether the Department of Environment returns or not bigger systemic problems exist that need to be addressed to alleviate environmental decay in communities of color.
“The city should think about planning and development from a health and environmental perspective… the city needs to acknowledge its history of racism and its history about how it hurts low income communities,” he said.