Illinois’ new environmental justice law and Chicago coal

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed the Environmental Justice Act into law in August, creating a 10-person commission to determine whether people in poor communities are disproportionately affected by pollution.

However, one of the more visible and advocated-for environmental justice cases in Chicago may not be affected by its passing.

Local organizations and aldermen in Chicago have been advocating for the Clean Power Ordinance, which was introduced to the city council in July 2010 and re-introduced this summer.

The ordinance calls for two main coal power plants in the city, Fisk and Crawford, to reduce particulates by 90 percent and carbon dioxide by 50 percent. These plants are located in the predominantly Latino and low-income Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods. Advocates say pollution from the plants causes health complications disproportionately in the youth and elderly.

While Illinois’ new Environmental Justice Act will create a commission, made up of those at a state and local level, to review environmental justice issues, Barry Matchett of the Environmental Law and Policy Center says this won’t have any direct effect on Fisk and Crawford; the act applies to new projects, rather than existing ones.

The environmental justice commission is charged with reviewing policies and laws, advising state entitities on environmental issues, creating a criteria for assessing environmental justice issues in communities and recommending how to address these issues to the Governor.

Elmo Dowd, assistant director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency agrees that initially, the act will not affect coal power plants in Chicago, though it may potentially have an effect as a part of a new environmental justice policy.

“At a state level […] we realize that environmental justice must step up and we can’t just give lip service,” Dowd said.

According to Dowd, the commission will look at Illinois’ policies and practices to ensure that they address and include the environmental justice community as a part of the planning process. The IEPA has had an environmental justice policy for five years, but this commission will involve a wider variety of voices – from local government to affected communities concerned with environmental justice – examining social and economic justice as it is affected by environmental decisions.

Lan Richart, co-director of the Eco-Justice Collaborative and part of the group that initiated the Clean Power Coalition, says that the act will raise the profile and importance of concerns over environmental justice issues.

“It shines light on these two areas [Fisk and Crawford], though there’s no immediate impact,” Richart said. “In principle, [the act] is absolutely necessary. How it will play out, we’ll see, but Gov. Quinn has been an environmentally supportive governor.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said he supports reducing the emissions from Fisk and Crawford, which Richart says is more support than activists had under Mayor Daley.

The Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization organizer Jerry Mead Lucero thinks any real effects are a long way off.

“It’s a very small first step,” Lucero said. “Whether it’s great or not depends on who is appointed to the commission.”

Lucero is hopeful that it will not take more than one or two months before the commission is appointed and begins to review policy and practices.

“Down the road, the commission will look at communities like Little Village or Pilsen, which are unduly affected,” Lucero said.

He hopes that the commission will have some effect on coal power in Chicago. He calls the Fisk and Crawford plants, and their emissions a “primary example of the most outstanding example of environmental injustice in the state.”

Photo by kendo26 via Creative Commons

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