HUD ruling against Chicago seeks to halt decadeslong trend of environmental racism on city’s South, West sides
When Chicago native Alfredo Romo of the McKinley Park neighborhood made his way down West Pershing Road one March morning in 2018, the last thing he expected to see was an asphalt mixing plant right across the street from his local park and community center.
“It just makes no sense that a heavy industrial facility was able to be constructed seemingly overnight because of the connections and the clout that they had within the city and the state,” Romo said in a May interview. “And here we are [four years later] feeling those direct impacts across from a park that is an open green space and a community center.”
Romo serves as the executive director of the McKinley Park environmental organization Neighbors for Environmental Justice (N4EJ). The group formed after the construction of the facility for asphalt mixing company MAT Asphalt, at 2055 W. Pershing Road.
“There were zero public meetings or public notice of any kind from any of our elected officials or regulatory agencies: not our alderman, not the Illinois EPA, not the Chicago Department of Public Health,” according to N4EJ’s website.
The work of N4EJ and other environmental justice groups aim to challenge business-as-usual Chicago politics that push heavy industry into neighborhoods of color, often within the city’s industrial corridors. Victories on this front are increasing yet locally focused in recent years, but systemic change may be on the horizon.
Enough is enough
A two-year investigation from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) concluded in July, ruling that the city violated residents’ civil rights by deliberately placing heavy industry facilities in industrial corridors largely concentrated in the city’s predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods.
In a July 19 letter to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, HUD threatened to withhold its Community Development Block Grant to the city (amounting to $375 million) if it does not change unlawful planning and land-use policies.
The HUD ruling and the opportunity for realignment of power in the City Council where several aldermen have resigned could have an impact on City Council and mayoral races in Chicago’s Municipal Election on Feb. 28, 2023.
HUD initially launched the investigation in October 2020 after three neighborhood-based environmental organizations filed a complaint against the city regarding this industrial relocation. The complaint was sparked by outcry over a proposed move of metal-scrapping facility General Iron from predominantly white Lincoln Park to the heavily Black and Latino Southeast Side.
Gina Ramirez, Board President of the environmental justice organization Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF), emphasized the importance of the block grant funding—which supports public health and social programs for low-income communities.
“It would be horrible if the city is that stubborn to lose funding that impacts the people that need it the most,” Ramirez said.
The Lightfoot administration was initially defensive, calling HUD’s accusations “absolutely absurd” and signaling that it would take the matter to court. However, HUD said in an Oct. 20 statement that the two sides have opened up negotiations over potential reforms. The Lightfoot administration did not respond to requests for comment regarding the lawsuit or the negotiations.
SETF was one of the organizations that filed the initial complaint. Ramirez said that one of the demands that SETF will bring to the negotiating table is the establishment of a bill implementing compliance history as a factor in granting facility permits.
“If you have a record, it’s really hard to get a job. But when you’re in industry and have a record [of polluting], the city is like, ‘We don’t care, you can still get a new permit and operate wherever,’” Ramirez said.
A broader trend
For Chicago’s low-income communities, the complaint and HUD ruling represent the culmination of decades of environmental mistreatment. The city also reported in 2020 that an estimated 5% of all premature deaths in the city come from conditions attributable to breathing PM2.5 pollution. PM (particulate matter) refers to microscopic droplets of solid or liquid pollution that humans breathe in as it sifts through the air; PM2.5 is particularly harmful because it’s small enough to reach deeper into the respiratory tract and even the bloodstream (in contrast to the larger PM10, for example) to inflict bodily damage and disease.
As the proposed home for General Iron’s new facility, Ramirez’s native Southeast Side neighborhood was the centerpiece to the three-year fight against the metal shredding-plant.
This fight included a monthlong hunger strike launched in February 2021 that included a local CPS teacher, environmental advocates and politicians—such as Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th). Sigcho-Lopez’s ward is nowhere near the Southeast Side, but he empathized with the community’s struggles based on similar conditions of mistreatment in his neighborhood of Pilsen, a vibrant Latino community in the nearby South Side.
“I have close friends and people I live with who have died because of cancer or who are dealing with respiratory illnesses or asthma. I have kids that I’ve personally taught or coached who are dealing with these effects. So, I certainly empathize with their situation,” Sigcho-Lopez said.
Sigcho-Lopez explained how the health impacts felt by neighborhoods like Pilsen, the Southeast Side and McKinley Park are detrimental, especially to at-risk groups like seniors and children.
“The cognitive development effects that this dirty industry and pollution can have on our kids will permanently live with them and their future… We can not condemn entire generations because of the inaction and complicity of city government,” Sigcho-Lopez said.
The Lightfoot administration did eventually block the final General Iron permit in February, signaling a victory for neighborhoods like Ramirez’s. RMG, the parent company, has challenged this denial in a lawsuit, complaining that it was “political.”
To Romo, the city has taken advantage of neighborhoods that have characteristics making them less able to fight new polluters.
“Once you identify what those characteristics are, you find less education, language barriers, essential workers working multiple jobs or working for heavy industries. So I think that the system by design continues to target these vulnerable communities,” Romo said.
Chicago’s politics, pollution, and perpetrators
Sigcho-Lopez is one of 50 aldermen on Chicago’s City Council, who each represent different wards of the city. David Teeghman, political chair of the environmental political action committee Sierra Club, explained how, to him, the Council is set up for unaccountability.
“We still do have a political system in Chicago where you have 50 wards with basically 50 different political fiefdoms,” Teeghman said in a May interview. “If the alderman approves something in their ward, most other aldermen are not going to have anything to say about it.”
Romo said much of the blame for MAT Asphalt falls on McKinley Park’s former Ald. George Cardenas (12th). Cardenas, who was also City Council’s Chair of the Environmental Protection and Energy Committee, approved the plant despite public backlash before (and after) its construction.
Cardenas resigned Nov. 30 as the 12th ward’s alderman in preparations to fill the unopposed 1st District seat on the Cook County Board of Review. He could not be reached for comment.
In 2021, MAT Asphalt accumulated the highest number of air pollution complaints of any address in Chicago. However, Matt Baron, a MAT Asphalt media representative, said that the facility is treated as a scapegoat and actually upholds a high standard of environmental friendliness. He provided documents showing that many of the odor complaints directed at MAT Asphalt were filed on days when it was closed.
“They don’t want to listen to a narrative that does not align with their narrative. A complaint is a complaint—it’s not proof of a problem, it’s proof of someone making a phone call,” Baron said.
“There’s two other asphalt plants not that far away—what are the data points on their emissions?” he added. “We continually are urging organizations and challenging the media to ask those entities what the results of their studies are; we’ve been transparent about ours and they haven’t about theirs.”
Baron said that MAT Asphalt spent an extra $580,000 to install non-required environmental technology including on-site sweeper and water trucks, a rooftop over its waste storage area and three condensing units.
“There’s been these decades and decades of environmental injustice, and we’re the new kid on the block with the most advanced and environmentally sound technology and we don’t get any credit for that,” Baron said.
According to Teeghman, power shifts in the City Council could have major implications for the city’s environmental future. Sierra Club has expanded its political endorsement program to include these City Council races for the upcoming Chicago Municipal Elections.
To scope out candidates for the first step of their endorsement process, the group created a questionnaire with the help of local environmental organizations that they’ve sent to incumbent aldermen running for reelection.
Teeghman said that Romo helped sculpt several questions on the questionnaire, including the one about a Cumulative Impact Ordinance. Such an ordinance would require the city to take into account the community and existing environmental burdens when considering permits for new facilities.
Sigcho-Lopez advocated for this ordinance in the City Council’s Nov. 7 vote on the city budget, but could not get a “firm commitment” on its implementation. He voted against the budget because of its lack of funds for reinstating a Chicago Department of the Environment cut by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Sigcho-Lopez said he hopes voters will elect candidates who represent the interests of communities being damaged by environmental injustice.
“The candidates are going to try to fool people on election day, and I hope that the residents have the opportunity to elect local officials that represent the best interests of the public and not their wallets,” Sigcho-Lopez said.