Permit Denied: Southeast Side Community Organizers Win Environmental Justice Fight - Health & Medicine Policy Research Group

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Permit Denied: Southeast Side Community Organizers Win Environmental Justice Fight  

February 25, 2022

Following years of pressure from Southeast Side community members, last Friday, February 18, the Chicago Department of Public Health denied the permit for Southside Recycling, formerly known as General Iron, to operate on the Southeast Side.

Health & Medicine Policy Research Group and the Collaborative for Health Equity Cook County congratulate the Southeast Side community members and organizations who led this fight for the right to breathe clean air and for the health of their community.

This took years of organizing, which included community members going on a 30-day hunger strike in early 2021. Residents of the Southeast Side have struggled against environmental injustice for decades and even helped birth the environmental justice movement in the United States. So, this win is deeply rooted in a long legacy of environmental justice organizing. Here is a link to the statement from Southeast Side organizations who led this fight.

This victory is by and for the residents of the Southeast Side. It is also a win for Chicagoans, who will breathe cleaner air due to this win, as communities across Chicago are organizing to support one another’s environmental justice struggles. We recognize that many across the city who have waged and continue to wage fights for environmental justice played a critical role in this victory, as they champion the cause of environmental justice. Communities in Little Village, Pilsen, McKinley Park, and those fighting for access to safe clean water by standing against increasing water rates and failing water infrastructure share credit for the victory we see today.

Many individuals, institutions, and organizations raised their health justice voices in solidarity with frontline Southeast Side organizers. In March 2021, CHE Cook County and Health & Medicine delivered a letter to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner, and other officials that was signed by more than 500 health workers and nearly 80 organizations. Over the last year, CHE Cook County and Health & Medicine conducted social media action days, call-in days, and joined press conferences and protests, detailed here.

Other health organizations’ efforts include the December 4 2021 technical comment to Commissioner Arwady and US EPA Regional Administrator Shore, which exemplifies the contribution of public health lawyers and environmental scientists. In December 2021, two Chicago Board of Health members expressed their opposition to a permit. The University of Illinois School of Public Health spearheaded a January 6, 2022 public letter to Mayor Lightfoot and Dr. Arwady signed by the Dean and hundreds of health workers, community members, and dozens of organizations.

Together, we brought our public health worker perspectives and sought to hold our colleagues at the Chicago Department of Public Health and the City of Chicago accountable for their health equity commitments and responsibilities. We are heartened that the right choice was made for health equity.

Following the announcement by the Chicago Department of Public Health, Michael S. Regan, US EPA Administrator, said in a statement that, “This is what environmental justice looks like.” We agree and also note that there is much work ahead.

For example, legislation at the state level is needed to protect communities from environmental racism. The Environmental Justice Air Permitting Bill is one example:HB4093/SB2906 will define environmental justice communities and give those communities more opportunities for local decision making and public participation in air pollution permitting matters. It also requires a review of cumulative impact.

Attention must be paid to flawed regulations that do not adequately protect health and the environment. As this December 2021 comment to CDPH and the EPA notes, for example, science has not even identified health effects thresholds for particulate matter and lead.

So, this victory should fuel us toward more collective organizing for health equity and environmental justice. Enjoy this moment. Celebrate this powerful win––a win that many thought to be impossible, but was made to be possible because we worked together, collectively in solidarity with Southeast Side residents leading the way. This shows that organizing works and that when we fight, we win. Health equity requires bold social movements and building power.

Again, we thank and congratulate our Southeast Side community leaders who led this organizing effort to demand that the health of themselves, their families, and their communities be valued.

With this hard-fought win, Southeast Side environmental justice organizers have turned what had been a textbook case of environmental racism into an environmental justice landmark of citywide and national significance.