Chicago Air Pollution: Can the Environmental Justice Act Help?

By Kelsey Greenagel*

The proposed Environmental Justice Act of 2019 has potential to benefit the City of Chicago. If signed into law, this bill would direct the EPA to consider how its responses to Clean Air Act violations disproportionately affect certain Chicago neighborhoods consisting largely of minority populations and mandate the consideration of cumulative pollution’s impact on those communities when granting permits to industrial facilities.

Chicago’s South and West Side are disproportionately harmed by air pollution as compared against the city’s North Side.[i] Over time, industrial plants on the North Side were pushed out due to increased development of the area.[ii] Today, such plants remain in the less-developed South and West Side neighborhoods.[iii] Many of these facilities are responsible for releasing dangerous airborne pollutants.[iv] There has been lax enforcement of those facilities by the U.S. EPA, the Illinois EPA, and Chicago’s Department of Health. The Environmental Justice Act of 2019 could potentially curb the U.S. EPA’s mismanagement.

What is environmental justice? The bill defines it as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all individuals, regardless of race, color, national origin, educational level, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”[v] In essence, minority and low-income communities are often more affected by environmental issues and have less means to deal with those issues, which the environmental justice movement seeks to redress. The bill’s goal is for all Federal agencies to incorporate achievement of environmental justice into their missions.[vi]

Under the Trump administration, EPA policies have been more lenient towards those polluting facilities. Recent data shows that in the EPA’s Chicago office, the number of inspections has dropped 60% since the start of the current administration.[vii] In 2017, the New York Times analyzed enforcement data and found that the number of requests for testing sent out by the same Chicago office to companies suspected of polluting had also dropped dramatically under the Trump administration.[viii]

Recent litigation efforts directed at the U.S. EPA demonstrate the dissatisfaction with the agency’s management of air pollution in Chicago. The Office of the Illinois Attorney General has condemned the EPA’s lack of action and enforcement regarding Clean Air Act issues through letters to the Federal agency and the filing of lawsuits against it.[ix] One suit claimed that the EPA failed to designate unhealthy levels of smog in the City of Chicago, among other areas, by the statutory deadline and thus delayed state action dependent on the formal designation.[x] Another suit alleged that the EPA failed to control harmful methane emissions by not establishing proper guidelines for that pollutant by the appropriate deadline mandated by the Clean Air Act.[xi] A federal lag further delays states like Illinois from creating and implementing their plans, in accordance with the EPA standards, to mitigate methane emissions.[xii]

Communications between state officials and the U.S. EPA further illustrate the agency’s mishandling of air pollution in Chicago. Illinois Members of Congress also sent letters to the EPA, arguing that it needed to take greater action accorded to it under the Clean Air Act to prevent two steelmaking suppliers, S.H. Bell and Watco, from further releasing dangerous manganese dust pollution on Chicago’s Southeast side.[xiii] The issue is so pronounced that researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have found higher levels of the neurotoxin in children’s toenails in Southeast Chicago than in other parts of the city.[xiv]

The EPA’s delayed actions or lack thereof are harming communities in Chicago. Any poor enforcement relating to the city is more likely to harm South and West Side neighborhoods because of those areas’ industrial nature.[xv]

Under this bill, Chicago would qualify for Federal agency attention as a community of color. Chicago’s Black or African American population constitutes 30.1% of the city’s total population, while for Illinois at large that number is 14.1%.[xvi] Because that minority group’s population in Chicago is higher than the state’s average, Chicago itself would qualify as a community of color under the bill’s definition.[xvii] When focusing in on individual neighborhoods on the South Side, these numbers increase exponentially. For example, Englewood has a 94.7% Black or African American population and Calumet Heights has a 95.9% population, both dwarfing the state average.[xviii]

Chicago also qualifies as a community of color when looking at the city’s Hispanic or Latino population, which comprises 29.0% of Chicago’s population and 16.8% of the Illinois populace. Concentrating on smaller communities on Chicago’s West Side, neighborhoods like Little Village and Pilsen have a 52.0% Hispanic or Latino population, again well above the state average.[xix]

The City of Chicago and many of these specific South and West Side communities fall under the bill’s purview. If this bill were enacted, the EPA would need to address environmental issues disproportionately harming these minority communities.

The Environmental Justice Act of 2019 draws much of its inspiration from President Clinton’s 1994 Executive Order 12898. The latter’s environmental justice vision was somewhat successful. In general, it brought greater awareness to the movement and inspired many states to enact environmental justice policies.[xx] However, not all Federal agencies complied with its mandate and there were no specific benchmarks that it compelled the agencies to meet.[xxi] In 2005, the EPA attempted to circumvent the Executive order’s mandate that racial impacts be considered, provoking considerable backlash.[xxii] Under the Obama administration’s EPA, attention to environmental justice was revived, but this was more talk than substantial policy changes.[xxiii]

Since Executive Order 12898 was not immensely effective, why is this new bill any different? One major difference is that this bill would codify that Executive order into law, making it more difficult for Federal agencies to drag their feet on implementing its mandate and safeguarding it from presidential revocation. This bill also amends the Clean Air Act by necessitating Federal agencies’ “consideration of cumulative impacts in certain permitting decisions.”[xxiv] Thus, when the EPA is deciding whether or not to grant a permit to an industrial facility, the community’s cumulative pollution levels would have to be taken into account. Considering Chicago’s South and West Side communities are dealing with toxic pollution like petcoke and manganese dust particles, this amendment could greatly impact those neighborhoods. Were this bill to pass into law, environmental justice might be served on those South and West Side communities.

*Kelsey Greenagel is a Junior Editor on MJEAL. They can be reached via email at kgreenag@umich.edu.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.


[i] Brett Chase, In Chicago, Pollution Hits West Side, South Side the Hardest, Study Finds, Chicago Sun Times (Oct. 25, 2018), https://chicago.suntimes.com/2018/10/25/18466281/in-chicago-pollution-hits-west-side-south-side-the-hardest-study-finds.

[ii] Gina Ramirez, Prioritizing Environmental Justice in Chicago, NRDC (Nov. 1, 2019), https://www.nrdc.org/experts/gina-ramirez/prioritizing-environmental-justice-chicago.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id.

[v] Environmental Justice Act of 2019, S.2236, 116th Cong. (2019).

[vi] Id.

[vii] Brett Chase, In Chicago and across the Midwest, Trump’s EPA Inspecting Polluters Less, Cutting Staff, Chicago Sun Times (Nov. 15, 2019), https://chicago.suntimes.com/2019/11/15/20966850/epa-environmental-protection-agency-cutbacks-polution-trump-chicago-midwest-sauget-veolia.

[viii] Eric Lipton and Danielle Ivory, Under Trump, E.P.A. Has Slowed Actions Against Polluters, and Put Limits on Enforcement Officers, N.Y. Times (Dec. 10, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/10/us/politics/pollution-epa-regulations.html.

[ix] See, e.g.,Press Release, Illinois Attorney General, Madigan & Attorneys General File Lawsuit Against U.S. EPA for Flouting Clean Air Requirements (Dec. 7, 2017), http://www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/pressroom/2017_12/20171207.html; Press Release, Illinois Attorney General, Attorney General Madigan Sues U.S. EPA Over Failure to Control Methane Pollution (Apr. 5, 2018), http://www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/pressroom/2018_04/20180405.html; Letter from Attorneys General to Scott Pruitt, EPA Administrator (June 29, 2017).

[x] Press Release, Illinois Attorney General, Madigan & Attorneys General File Lawsuit Against U.S. EPA for Flouting Clean Air Requirements (Dec. 7, 2017), http://www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/pressroom/2017_12/20171207.html.

[xi] Press Release, Illinois Attorney General, Attorney General Madigan Sues U.S. EPA Over Failure to Control Methane Pollution (Apr. 5, 2018), http://www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/pressroom/2018_04/20180405.html.

[xii] Letter from Attorneys General to Scott Pruitt, EPA Administrator (June 29, 2017).

[xiii] Press Release, Dick Durbin United States Senator Illinois, Durbin, Duckworth, Kelly Question EPA On Declared Monitoring & Testing Of Air Emissions (May 11, 2018), https://www.durbin.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/durbin-duckworth-kelly-question-epa-on-declared-monitoring-and-testing-of-air-emissions-; Press Release, Tammy Duckworth U.S. Senator for Illinois, Duckworth, Durbin & Kelly Demand EPA Block Southeast Chicago Company From Exposing Children To Brain Damage (Feb. 22, 2019), https://www.duckworth.senate.gov/news/press-releases/duckworth-durbin-and-kelly-demand-epa-block-southeast-chicago-company-from-exposing-children-to-brain-damage.

[xiv] Press Release, Dick Durbin United States Senator Illinois, Durbin, Duckworth, Kelly Question EPA On Declared Monitoring & Testing of Air Emissions (May 11, 2018), https://www.durbin.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/durbin-duckworth-kelly-question-epa-on-declared-monitoring-and-testing-of-air-emissions-.

[xv] Gina Ramirez, Prioritizing Environmental Justice in Chicago, NRDC (Nov. 1, 2019), https://www.nrdc.org/experts/gina-ramirez/prioritizing-environmental-justice-chicago.

[xvi] U.S. Census Bureau, ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates, 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates (2017), https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?src=bkmk.

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] Id.

[xix] Id.

[xx] Albert Huang, The 20th Anniversary of President Clinton’s Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice, NRDC: Expert Blog (Feb. 10, 2014), https://www.nrdc.org/experts/albert-huang/20th-anniversary-president-clintons-executive-order-12898-environmental-justice.

[xxi] Rob Friedman, New Bill Centers Environmental Justice & Cumulative Impacts, NRDC: Expert Blog (July 24, 2019), https://www.nrdc.org/experts/rob-friedman/new-bill-centers-environmental-justice-cumulative-impacts.

[xxii] Albert Huang, The 20th Anniversary of President Clinton’s Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice, NRDC: Expert Blog (Feb. 10, 2014), https://www.nrdc.org/experts/albert-huang/20th-anniversary-president-clintons-executive-order-12898-environmental-justice.

[xxiii] Id.

[xxiv] Environmental Justice Act of 2019, S.2236, 116th Cong. (2019).

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