EPA chief Michael Regan puts Illinois and Chicago on notice; old ways of approving permits may no longer apply
President Joe Biden has made environmental justice a priority like no other president. He campaigned on acknowledging and dealing with EJ and will try to blend it into the fabric of his $2 trillion infrastructure and climate plans.
That’s the talk, the goal and USEPA chief Michael Regan this week put some teeth into the Biden EJ agenda. Regan put Chicago and Illinois on notice that it will no longer be business as usual when it comes to the siting of industry in predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods.
The issue brewing for some time is that a scrap metal processor was on the cusp of being granted permits to set up shop in Chicago’s Southeast Side, which is heavily Hispanic and already home to heavy industry and plagued with poor air quality. The company, General Iron, has a checkered environmental past and here’s the kicker. It’s moving from a mostly white North side neighborhood which is rapidly gentrifying.
The message sent is it’s ok to site industry in places where people of color live, but not in upscale or gentrifying White neighborhoods. General Iron says its facility will be “the most environmentally conscious recycling facility in the country,” according to Chicago Sun Times reporting.
Southeast Side citizens cried foul and launched a campaign to get Chicago to deny the permits, including a hunger strike but to no avail.
But EPA chief Regan this week called a timeout and told Chicago it needs to review the permits and conduct a study to examine them with health hazards and environmental justice in mind.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot quickly said the city would comply.
What’s the net of Regan’s action? It’s too soon to tell. Calling for a study is hardly awe inspiring and is common when you don’t want to deal with an issue. It could easily be seen as doing something of little substance to placate the Southeast Side community.
But I’m trying to be optimistic and give Regan the benefit of the doubt, especially given the politics.
Regan represents President Biden, a Democrat and Illinois is a deep blue state with Democrats controlling the governor’s office, the legislature and the city of Chicago. Even the Republican minority leans toward moderation eschewing the policies and practices of the previous occupant of the White House.
With Regan challenging Illinois’ decisions, it takes politics out of the equation. Minimally it says to legislators and regulators that they may have to expand their playbooks to include the issues like cumulative impacts and health concerns before issuing permits.
Whatever happens, other states and cities like Michigan and Detroit may want to take notice. Business as usual may no longer be an option.
EPA Administrator Regan’s letter to Chicago is here.
Photo: Satellite view of Detroit River courtesy NASA.
Chicago-based environmental journalist