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‘Environmental justice’ law appears dead as community, business groups clash


A proposed state law to strengthen environmental protections for low-income communities appears to be dead for a second-straight legislative session as lawmakers fear the wrath of business groups in an election year.

Environmental groups say a law is needed to slow the addition of pollution sources in communities already overwhelmed with bad air and other hazards. The businesses say the proposal adds red tape and fees that will kill jobs.

The idea of an “environmental justice” law was supported by Gov. J.B. Pritzker last year but a bill was never debated in 2021. The same bill now lacks enough votes in the waning days of lawmakers’ current session in Springfield, advocates say.

“We continue to fight for this,” Sen. Celina Villanueva, D-Chicago, said during an online news conference Wednesday. “The reality is nothing is ever really dead in Springfield even at the end of session. We continue to fight.”

Part of the proposal would add a $200,000 state construction permit fee — a recommendation from Pritzker’s administration — and additional government scrutiny to businesses defined as “major” pollution sources that want to operate in communities deemed already overburdened by environmental stresses. The industry groups believe the bill would dramatically expand the number of areas considered to be already overburdened.

The proposal also requires a public meeting on a polluting company’s permit application and would call for a health impact assessment. A similar process took place in Chicago last year related to a city permit needed for Reserve Management Group’s plan to build a scrap metal shredding operation on the Southeast Side. That permit was rejected by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s health department last month.

Another metal-shredding business already operating in Pilsen, Sims Metal Management, is now going through a state environmental permit process and residents are calling for a comprehensive health study in that community.

Pritzker’s Illinois Environmental Protection Agency says it’s working with community and business groups to find common ground.

“We look forward to continued efforts with all interested parties with the goal of reaching agreement that protects our communities and ensures the agency can implement its additional responsibility,” Illinois EPA said in a statement.

The fee “is consistent with Illinois EPA’s practice of requiring permit applicants to pay fees that will be applied to our administrative costs,” the agency added. “The actual figure itself, like all other portions of the bill, is currently the subject of discussions amongst interested parties.”

The business groups say supporters of the proposal won’t negotiate but community activists dispute that, saying it’s the industry organizations — from the Illinois Chamber of Commerce to the Illinois Farm Bureau — who are not budging.

“We have been upfront with them since Day One about what we are proposing,” said Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. “They want to redline the entire document,” she added, referring to possible revisions of the bill.

The Illinois Chamber said the bill doesn’t “address the numerous significant concerns and suggested improvements provided by the business community.”

The Illinois Manufacturers Association complains the measure “includes draconian fees, lengthens permitting timeframes, supersedes local government zoning decisions, conflicts with existing federal requirements and will hinder economic growth in communities.”

Those powerful lobbies are joined by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Business, Home Builders Association of Illinois and others.

Parts of the bill are “ambiguous, duplicative and don’t make sense,” said Kevin Semlow, director of state legislation for Illinois Farm Bureau. “All these changes in environmental law have an effect on what our members do.”

As Pritzker and legislators prepare for re-election in November, the timing is working against the measure.

“The pushback from the Senate leadership is that it might be too controversial to do right now and it might need more work,” said Jennifer Walling, who is lobbying for the legislation as executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council.

If the proposed law was in effect last year, fewer than a dozen state construction permit approvals would have been affected, a small portion of the total number, Walling said.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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