Reforms to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Permitting Process is Long Overdue - Health & Medicine Policy Research Group

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Reforms to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Permitting Process is Long Overdue

March 11, 2024

Statement by Health & Medicine’s Policy Director, Wesley Epplin:

Recently, Governor Pritzker and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency entered into an agreement with the US Environmental Protection Agency to reform permitting processes for heavy industry in Illinois. This move comes in response to a civil rights complaint made by Southeast Side of Chicago residents in response to the proposed move of the General Iron scrap metal polluter to the community. According to this article in the Chicago Reader, “The settlement between the U.S. EPA and the Illinois EPA includes that the agency enact expansive changes which center community input as well as the history of the company applying for the permit.”

Changing the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s (IEPA) permitting process is long overdue. One of the things that I’ve admired most about the organizing for environmental justice on Chicago’s Southeast Side is that the groups both focus on a particular issue while also connecting each issue with the broader systemic issues that keep bringing heavy polluting industries into their own and other environmental justice communities. This helps bring in communities outside of the Southeast Side who likewise see the same systemic issues in their communities. Reforming the permitting process at the state level is critical alongside having a cumulative impact ordinance at the local level. These are systemic reforms that can start to reduce the systemic racism in the permitting and placement of polluting heavy industrial sites often allowed under current law.

Throughout our involvement with the #StopGeneralIron campaign, we would hear from officials at the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) that their permit application was the last in a line of other permits and that their hands were tied by the time the decision came to them, given other agencies’ decisions and because elected officials had given the green light and support. Fortunately, CDPH realized that they did not have to act as a rubber stamp. In the end, the demand for environmental justice and organizing from the Southeast Side, and many around the city, including a 30-day hunger strike, plus guidance from the US EPA (also responding to Southeast Side organizing) there were some positive results. CDPH delayed and then followed a process of reviewing for health equity impacts, and they made the right decision aligned with health equity and public health principles: CDPH denied the permit. Having the IEPA move toward better environmental—and thus, public health—protection is a big deal. Having more agencies embed health equity and environmental justice principles will help ensure public health is prioritized.

The lesson here is that we need public health to be the top priority across all government decisions. That’s certainly true for determining what polluting industry will be allowed to set up shop and where, and this principle applies to all government decisions. The relative health of the public and degree of health inequities are the best measures of the success or failure of government. Maximizing public health is what government success looks like.