Southeast Side activists celebrate city’s environmental justice agreement: ‘We get a victory — but the war is still on.’

Gina Ramirez’s son was a toddler when she first began joining protests against a metal scrapper’s move to her largely Latino, working-class neighborhood on Chicago’s Southeast Side.

Her son, who will be 9 years old in two weeks, has grown up sharing his mother with the community effort to stop “something that shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” she said.

Southeast Side activists like Ramirez, the Midwest outreach manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council, spoke in a news conference Tuesday about their hopes that Brandon Johnson’s new mayoral administration will continue to build on one of former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s last actions in office: an agreement to overhaul city practices that have led to industrial disparities in Black and brown neighborhoods already burdened by high levels of pollution.

“This is a long time coming,” Ramirez said at the news conference.

“I’m glad that the city decided to settle with (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) on this complaint that we put forward,” said Cheryl Johnson, the executive director of the environmental justice organization People for Community Recovery and the daughter of the late Hazel Johnson, known as the mother of environmental justice. “We get a victory — but the war is still on.”

The city of Chicago reached the historic agreement with HUD Friday after Southeast Side activists initiated a yearslong federal civil rights investigation into local laws that allowed polluters to be concentrated in certain communities, many of which are on the Southeast Side.

In these areas, sewage treatment, refuse and garbage plants, landfills and chemical-processing facilities subjected residents to toxic materials in the air, land and water. Many of these residents are plagued by higher rates of coronary heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease than in any other part of the city, according to the nonpartisan Alliance for the Great Lakes.

“There was human sacrifices to get to this point where we are today,” Cheryl Johnson said.

The federal investigation began in 2020, after Reserve Management Group took over and closed metal shredder General Iron in the affluent, mostly white Lincoln Park neighborhood, with the plan to move operations to the East Side neighborhood, home largely to working-class communities of color.

When the move was proposed, neighborhood activists petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and HUD to investigate the matter. Some teachers and community members even went on a monthlong hunger strike to protest what they considered to be environmental racism.

In February 2022, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot rejected a permit for RMG, a decision the company appealed to a city administrative judge.

In the last week of her mayoral administration and just a few days ahead of the agreement, she issued an executive order that requires city agencies to make decisions based on community impact assessments and to implement environmental justice efforts in certain neighborhoods. These actions were built into the HUD agreement.

The three-year binding agreement with the federal government will see reforms in City Hall planning, zoning and land-use practices. Community activists say the settlement will have repercussions on communities of color in Chicago and in major cities across the country.

“It’s also very inspirational for communities that are struggling with environmental racism across the country,” said Olga Bautista, executive director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force. “This really could be a model for how cities (can) work together with impacted communities.”

Rob Weinstock, attorney for the task force and the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke and director of the environmental advocacy center at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, explained how this agreement can be a blueprint for other cities and communities in the United States.

“One of the aspects of this agreement that is both exciting and can be a little frustrating is that it is very process-oriented,” Weinstock said. “It’s about building off the processes that the city was already doing, adding to them, making sure they’re community-driven and then completing them to have real, lasting, sweeping reform.

“That also means, though, that this agreement is transferable to other communities around the country, because they can look at their own history, their own land-use regulations and they can say, ‘Oh, this is how they’re reforming them in Chicago, let’s use those processes, but apply them to our own situation.’ So that’s very exciting on a national level.”

Bautista said Southeast Side environmental justice advocates have committed to working with the Johnson administration to not only implement the settlement but also further strengthen its provisions.