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The city’s inspector general says public health officials are failing to hold polluters accountable for emissions.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comment from Chicago environmental advocate Olga Bautista.

Chicago’s Department of Public Health has failed to monitor air quality or keep tabs on hundreds of polluters whose operations release soot, toxic chemicals, particulate matter and other airborne emissions dangerous to public health and the environment, according to a comprehensive audit released last week by the city’s inspector general. 

The lack of monitoring means that violations are often not issued even when companies are polluting, and the inspector general also found that the department does not systematically follow up to make sure violations have been resolved. 

The audit also confirmed what environmental justice leaders in Chicago have long been saying: that the city government is failing to protect the most vulnerable communities from pollution sources disproportionately located in lower-income, immigrant and minority neighborhoods. 

Maps published in the audit show that the neighborhoods with the highest number of facilities with high emissions are on the Southeast Side and in Little Village and Pilsen, the communities best known for environmental justice struggles including around petcoke storage and coal plants. Austin and New City, largely African American low-income neighborhoods on the West and South Sides, are also in the top five for large emissions sources. 

The inspector general’s audit examined data from 2015 to 2017 regarding 502 facilities that the city is delegated to inspect and monitor under an agreement with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Advocates have been especially concerned about the lack of monitoring and enforcement since former Mayor Rahm Emanuel eliminated the city’s Department of the Environment in 2011 and turned over environmental enforcement to the Department of Public Health. Critics argued the health department was already overburdened with responsibilities ranging from mental health, sexually transmitted diseases and violence prevention to demolition monitoring, asbestos control and solid waste inspection. 

Community leaders are calling on new Mayor Lori Lightfoot to prioritize environmental justice and equity in pollution control and sustainability efforts, and to create a community engagement process around the issues. 

The audit made recommendations including that the Department of Public Health focus on over-burdened communities, hire more inspectors, standardize inspection and violation processes and update online records. The audit says that the department largely agrees with the recommendations and has some such improvements underway. 

Lack of inspections 

Under the federal Clean Air Act, the Illinois EPA is tasked with making sure companies with air emissions secure operating permits and submit annual emissions reports. The city has its own Environmental Protection and Control Ordinance. Some facilities are monitored by both the city and state, while the city is solely responsible for supervising permits and emissions reports for smaller operations like dry cleaners, motor vehicle repair shops and chrome platers.

This makes lax enforcement particularly troubling since such small businesses often deal with highly toxic chemicals, are located in dense residential neighborhoods and yet go unnoticed by public officials, community leaders and regular residents. Toxic chemicals used in such operations include methylene chloride, a paint stripper used in auto body repair, and the dry-cleaning solvent perchloroethylene.

Energy-related pollution like the city’s now-closed coal plants and petroleum coke storage sites have gotten more attention than smaller businesses, but the polluting small businesses are highly likely to be located in the same neighborhoods that have long suffered the brunt of pollution from energy generation and transportation. City inspections also cover natural gas plants and manufacturing of candy, steel products and other goods.

The audit found that between 2015 and 2017, the department met its internal air quality inspection goals less than half the time; the department did not quantify potential air pollution for 359 facilities that it should have looked at; and in 2017, less than half of facilities had a valid Certificate of Operation as required. 

The certificate is issued when a company self-reports that it is able to operate within environmental regulations. Certificates are separated into four categories based on amount of annual emissions, from under 10 tons to more than 100 tons. The certificate entails an annual fee up to $1,250 for the largest category. 

While the Southeast Side (specifically the South Deering neighborhood), Pilsen, Little Village, Austin and New City have the highest numbers of larger emitters, facilities emitting under 10 tons per year are concentrated in immigrant, Puerto Rican and African American neighborhoods on the West and Northwest side. 

While the certificate cost and procedure hardly seems burdensome for companies, the audit noted that infrequent inspections make it less likely companies will renew their Certificate of Operation annually as required or seek required permits for new equipment, since violations are likely to go unnoticed. 

The inspector general also found that the health department was using an outdated, ad hoc process to deal with uncategorized facilities seeking certificates. It was charging these facilities $999 to launch the inspection process, though many should actually have paid less than that and the practice is not enshrined anywhere in municipal code. Now the health department said it is issuing refunds to facilities that overpaid. 

During the three-year period studied, one in five facilities that should have been inspected were never visited. The department told the inspector general that its three engineers could not handle all inspections, and the audit also found that the department had no process or training for the engineers to prioritize the highest risk facilities in their inspections. Additionally, the department told the inspector general that its inspectors could issue warnings instead of violations, yet they did not regularly follow up on warnings to make sure problems had been corrected. 

Accountability and recommendations

Given the lack of proactive enforcement by the city, local leaders and advocates have long known that monitoring and activism by citizens and environmental and health groups is crucial to holding polluters accountable. 

Online data is essential to such efforts. But the inspector general also found that the city’s online public data portal has incomplete information about environmental complaints, inspections and permits. The inspector said the city’s online Lookup Table allowing residents to search the environmental and complaint history of a specific address is by contrast user-friendly and “understandable.” 

The inspector general found that the department is responsive to air quality complaints, making them a priority and resolving more than 80% of them within 24 hours. But even this process has been frustrating for some residents particularly in environmental justice communities, since as the audit notes, fugitive emissions or other problem emissions may be “fleeting” and no longer detectable even if an inspector visits several hours later. The inspector general also criticized a lack of clear record-keeping for complaints, including the use of multiple computer codes that make it difficult to analyze complaint data. The audit noted that residents perceive that the now-defunct Department of Environment was more responsive to complaints than the health department has been. 

The inspector general made a number of detailed recommendations for the health department, and in communications published in the audit, the health department noted its intention or ongoing actions to adopt most of the recommendations. 

The inspector general recommended the Department of Public Health prioritize facilities close to environmental justice communities, and also look at violation patterns and best practices in other municipalities as it revamps its inspection processes. 

The audit also recommends the department develop a Certificate of Operations enforcement policy that includes proactively checking every month for facilities that don’t have current certificates. The audit called for hiring more inspectors, and for development of an inspection manual. 

The public health department told the inspector general that it is developing an enforcement mechanism for certificates of operation, using state emissions data to reclassify some facilities’ certificate categories, and updating the data portal. The department still plans to allow inspectors to issue warnings rather than violations, but promises to ensure the problems are addressed in a “timely manner.” 

Olga Bautista, a long-time environmental advocate on the Southeast Side, said she wants Lightfoot to take meaningful action, including regarding the plan for a metal processing and recycling facility to move to the Southeast Side, which Lightfoot has indicated she supports.

“She more or less said that they would be closely watched, but by whom if, as the OIG report said, the city isn’t able to keep up with inspections,” said Bautista, who is the community planning manager for the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “I think that this is very similar to the countless investigations into police misconduct. The city may shift things around but they refuse to invest the resources to make lasting change.”

Kari Lydersen

Kari has written for Midwest Energy News since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.