Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration vowed Friday to take a more rigorous look at polluters before allowing them to operate or expand in low-income communities.

The policy change resolves a civil rights lawsuit filed three years ago in response to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s approval of a scrap shredder in Chicago’s predominantly Latino Southeast Side after the owners closed their often-troubled General Iron operation in wealthy, largely White Lincoln Park.

Lawyers for community groups petitioned for federal intervention, accusing the Illinois EPA and city agencies of colluding with developers to concentrate polluters in a corner of the city where residential yards already are contaminated with heavy metals and toxic chemicals from nearby industries.

Under an agreement with U.S. EPA investigators, the state agency promised to require more effective pollution-control equipment and consider air-quality monitoring if industries want to build or expand in environmental justice communities throughout Illinois.

Past violations of environmental laws will be taken into consideration as well.

Polluters near schools, day care centers and medical facilities will face increased scrutiny. Neighbors will get more notifications about permit applications and the state will require public hearings when requested.

“Segregation is alive in Chicago, and it’s a future that I don’t want my kids to live through,” said Gina Ramirez, a senior adviser to the Southeast Environmental Task Force. “Illinois should treat permitting these dangerous facilities with the seriousness that it deserves. That means actually taking into account the health of the people living in the communities where they are operating.”

After the Illinois EPA approved a permit for the RMG scrap shredder in 2020, community groups focused their efforts on then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot, protesting outside her home and filing a civil rights complaint against the city with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Some opponents staged a hunger strike to draw attention to what they considered environmental racism.

Lightfoot ended up denying the final permit Ohio-based RMG needed to begin shredding scrap metal along the Calumet River near 116th Street and Avenue O.

RMG is appealing. For now, the company’s machinery stands idle a few blocks away from Washington High School, where state monitoring equipment routinely detects some of the city’s dirtiest air.

The agreement between federal and state officials did not revoke RMG’s state permit. Another part of the deal cleared the Illinois EPA from admitting any wrongdoing during its review of the project.

Lightfoot settled the HUD complaint shortly before leaving office.

In September, Mayor Brandon Johnson pledged to overhaul zoning, planning and land-use ordinances that encourage heavy industry to move out of predominantly white neighborhoods into other parts of Chicago disproportionately burdened by pollution, poverty and disease.

City Hall hasn’t followed through on those promises yet.

“We’ve been caught in the middle in a constant struggle to protect our health while industry continues to pile up in neighborhoods like mine and while government agencies continue to rubber stamp permits,” said Cheryl Johnson, executive director of People for Community Recovery, another nonprofit group behind the civil rights complaints.

Said Johnson: “This is a huge step in the right direction that will finally end some of the worst practices of the (Illinois EPA) that helped create Chicago’s sacrifice zones.”

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