June 12, 2024


On the campaign trail, Brandon Johnson often talked about the asthma he suffered growing up just west of Chicago, connecting it to industrial pollution.

“For too long our communities have been seen as dumping grounds for waste and materials that no one seems to know what to do with,” the then mayoral candidate said at an event in the majority-Hispanic neighborhood of Pilsen.

When Johnson was sworn in last May, he inherited a city grappling with a host of environmental challenges.

In one of the nation’s most segregated cities, communities of color face disproportionate exposure to air pollution, lead and climate risks such as flooding. In 2022, federal investigators found Chicago violated residents’ civil rights by moving polluting industries into communities of color.

These disparities take a toll: residents of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods can expect to live 30 years longer than Chicagoans a few miles away.

Johnson, a progressive former public school teacher and union organizer ,ran on a platform of increasing funding for education and taking a mental-health approach to the city’s high rates of violence. But he also promised to tackle the city’s legacy of environmental racism, winning key endorsements from climate groups in the process.

Now, a year into Johnson’s term, those groups are holding Johnson to his word.

“We feel happy that somebody coming from the ‘movement’ space [was] elected to office,” said Oscar Sanchez, a community organizer. Now, he said community organizations “have to do twice the work, and [demand] transparency” to make the most of this political moment.

In 2021, Sanchez, an organizer at the Southeast Environmental Taskforce, went on a month-long hunger strike to protest against the proposed relocation of a scrapyard from a wealthy, mostly white neighborhood to Southeast Side, the predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood where he grew up.

That scrapyard became the subject of a US Department of Housing and Urban Development investigation that found the city had a “broad pattern” of allowing polluting industries to settle in communities of color. The agency threatened to withhold tens of millions in annual funding unless the city changed its discriminatory land use practices.

The successful campaign to halt the relocation “sets a precedent for how people are actually voicing their concerns,” Sanchez said. “Everybody’s watching Chicago.”

Angela Tovar, the city’s chief sustainability officer, was also raised on the Southeast Side. She said growing up exposed to pollution has informed Johnson’s and her approaches to governance.

Smoke from Canadian wildfires on the Chicago lakefront in June last year. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

“Mayor Johnson, he and I have really aligned our interests in supporting environmental justice communities,” she said. “If we’re saying that we’re committed to environmental justice, we have to commit to the principles of understanding that we have to allow for the community to speak for themselves.” Johnson declined to be interviewed for this piece.

Tovar helms the city’s department of environment, which former mayor Rahm Emmanuel disbanded in 2011 and Johnson reinstated in January. Although the department currently lacks enforcement powers – inspecting and punishing polluters largely falls to public health authorities – advocates say it gives them an ear at city hall.

“Bringing back and funding the department of environment was huge,” said Courtney Hanson, deputy executive director at People for Community Recovery, one the groups who filed the civil rights complaint to HUD over the proposed scrapyard relocation. “Mayor Johnson’s administration has really demonstrated their willingness to work with communities and hear from community leaders. We’re actually at the table, and our suggestions and input are being taken seriously and realized.”

Tovar is coordinating the city’s response to the HUD settlement, a process that involves changing zoning ordinances to reduce the pollution burden on communities. As a first step, the administration released a cumulative impact assessment in September, which identified the communities most burdened by pollution.

“There is a disproportionate impact of pollution on the south and west sides of the city, which are historically low income and have a high concentration of our Black and Latinx communities,” Tovar said.

Gina Ramirez, Midwest outreach manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council, also lives on the Southeast Side. “I was really excited in the fall to see that report come to fruition, but we’re still waiting on ordinance language,” she said. “As a person who lives in an environmental justice community, you want these laws in place yesterday, so it’s hard to be patient. But we’re seeing commitments that we haven’t seen in the past 10 years.”

In a statement, Tovar said that the administration is currently in the process of developing a proposed zoning ordinance.

Like many American cities, one of Chicago’s biggest challenges is modernizing its infrastructure.

The city has an estimated 400,000 lead pipes supplying homes with water, more than any other city in the US. A 2022 Guardian investigation revealed that one in 20 tap water tests performed for thousands of Chicago residents found lead that exceeded the EPA minimum, with Black and Latino neighborhoods having higher levels of neurotoxin in their water. In 2023 Chicago received a $336m federal loan to some of those pipes, but officials say remediation efforts could take 40 years and $12bn.

It’s a timeline Ramirez calls “ridiculous”, given the risks of lead pipes.

“I think [Johnson] inherited an administration that didn’t prioritize lead service line replacements,” she said. “We are seeing more lead service lines replaced, from what I’ve heard from folks, but not at the rate that we need to be at.”

In January, Johnson introduced an ordinance to ban gas in most new construction, a move that, if successful, would make Chicago the first major midwestern city to do so. Buildings are the city’s largest single source of emissions, with growing research linking gas stoves to asthma. Proponents say electrification would also help the estimated 30 to 40% Chicagoans who struggle to pay their gas bills. The administration also spearheaded retrofits of hundreds of homes with new insulation, heat pumps, and cooling systems by the end of 2025.

“The mayor taking action to move away from that is really important for Chicago and the nation, to signal that that transition is coming and our homes will be healthier and ratepayers will be relieved of that burden,” said Jack Darin, Illinois chapter director of Sierra Club, which endorsed Johnson.

The move is part of a broader strategy to address the effects of the climate crisis on Chicago. Just weeks into Johnson’s term, Chicago was hit with record rains that flooded much of the West Side, prompting a federal state of emergency.

Johnson cited those floods in February when he announced a lawsuit against Big Oil companies he blamed for the climate crisis. The suit, which goes after six major oil companies including BP, Chevron, Shell and ExxonMobil, makes Chicago the second-largest city, after New York, to file such a claim.

Advocates cheered the suit – and said they hoped Johnson would bring that willingness to fight to local battles.

“They fundamentally understand and are confronting the root cause of climate change,” said Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice. “That’s the level of protection we want to see – not just with large scale polluters, but also the ones within the city of Chicago, the ones that are doing similar catastrophes at a smaller scale in our neighborhoods.”



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