Urban planning and environmental groups release recommendations to improve health, equity near Calumet River - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Urban planning and environmental groups release recommendations to improve health, equity near Calumet River

image of General Iron metal shredding factory

Photo illustration courtesy Emily Maynard. Image courtesy Patrick Houdek, Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.

New Policy Ideas from Alliance for the Great Lakes and Metropolitan Planning Council Would Overhaul Zoning Rules for the Calumet Industrial Corridor 

CHICAGO, May 11, 2021 The Alliance for the Great Lakes and the Metropolitan Planning Council, in partnership with Calumet Connect, which is a coalition of local and community organizations working for change along the Calumet River, are releasing six policy recommendations today for the City of Chicago to overhaul its zoning to improve public health and address environmental injustice for residents living near the Calumet Industrial Corridor. The recommendations come as the City begins to embark on a long-awaited revamp of industrial corridor management rules and also on the heels of the decision by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot — at the urging of U.S. EPA Administrator Michael Regan — to delay issuing the permit for the General Iron Southeast Side Recycling project along the Calumet River, the six-mile river that connects Chicago's southeast side neighborhoods to Lake Michigan.

As the City begins the Far South Industrial Corridor Modernization process, which will include the Calumet Industrial Corridor, the following recommendations by the organizations ensure that the resulting corridor plan creates better options to deal with future environmental and public health risks more proactively. This process will determine what can be built along this corridor in the future and the types of public health and environmental issues that are considered when new facilities are permitted. They recommend that the city:

  • Use a community engagement process that encourages and uses community feedback, including feedback about health equity;
  • Make decisions based on the cumulative impact of development, not the emissions or other impacts of an individual facility;
  • Close the loophole that allows industries in the Calumet Industrial Corridor to handle and store hazardous materials without special review;
  • Create and enforce policies that reduce the negative public health impacts of warehouse truck traffic;
  • Require industrial facilities to plant and maintain landscaping that separates their facilities from nearby residential neighborhoods; and
  • Improve the public’s access to information about public health and environmental impacts of industrial activities.

The proposed relocation of General Iron’s recycling facility from Lincoln Park, a majority white neighborhood, to the Calumet Industrial Corridor, which is majority Hispanic/Latinx and Black, caused a great public outcry and inspired a month-long hunger strike by several residents in protest.

While the groups are pleased that Mayor Lightfoot and Administrator Regan listened to community members who fought to stop the General Iron project — many of whom are also involved in the Calumet Connect coalition — the proposed facility is the most recent in a long line of environmental injustices along the Calumet River that need to be addressed.

Previous research by Calumet Connect found that in the Calumet Industrial Corridor — where Hispanic/Latino residents make up 59% of the population and Black residents make up 25% — residents disproportionately experience adverse health outcomes, the area faces a shortage of primary healthcare services, and toxic chemical releases remain at high levels.

“General Iron is only the latest example of why we need zoning reform and more strict regulations to protect the people who live here,” said Olga Bautista, Southeast Side resident and community planning manager at the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “It’s why these new recommendations are so important, so that the city has the authority to deny such inequitable permits in the future. This is an opportunity to set a high bar for future generations. After a decade of fighting to prevent new pollution sources and clean up existing sources, the community deserves no less.”

“What would the community look like if planners valued the public health of these residents and workers, while simultaneously allowing for clean and safe jobs and responsible, equity-centered development?” said Christina Harris, director of land use and planning at the Metropolitan Planning Council. “These are the questions that should be at the forefront as Chicago undertakes new planning processes that tackle land use changes within the city’s industrial corridors.”

Administrator Regan and Mayor Lightfoot deserve commendation for pledging to work together to complete an environmental justice analysis to meaningfully consider the aggregate potential health effects of the proposed General Iron facility on the Southeast area of Chicago, and for using this analysis to inform the City’s permitting decision. The organizations look forward to supporting the City’s Chief Sustainability Officer, the Department of Public Health and community leaders in the development of a cumulative impact ordinance for consideration by the City Council before the end of this year.

The Alliance for the Great Lakes is a nonpartisan nonprofit working across the region to protect our most precious resource: the fresh, clean, and natural waters of the Great Lakes. Our staff are headquartered in Chicago, with additional offices in Michigan, Ohio, New York, and Wisconsin. 

Shaping a better, bolder, more equitable future for everyone: For more than 85 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has partnered with communities, businesses, and governments to unleash the greatness of the Chicago region. We believe that every neighborhood has promise, every community should be heard, and every person can thrive. To tackle the toughest urban planning and development challenges, we create collaborations that change perceptions, conversations—and the status quo. 

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Shaping a better, bolder, more equitable future for everyone

For more than 85 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has partnered with communities, businesses, and governments to unleash the greatness of the Chicago region. We believe that every neighborhood has promise, every community should be heard, and every person can thrive. To tackle the toughest urban planning and development challenges, we create collaborations that change perceptions, conversations—and the status quo. Read more about our work »

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