“When it comes to exposure to hazardous waste, Chicago is a tale of two cities divided by color and income.

On the South Side, neighborhoods like Roseland, Englewood, and Riverdale are over 95 percent black. Across the Windy City, fewer than one in five households live below the poverty line, but eight of nine communities on the West Side – many of which contain Superfund sites – exceed that level. The concentration of toxic risk suggests that Chicago continues to fail to live up to a fundamental principle of environmental justice: a person’s race or income level should not increase their likelihood of living near hazardous waste. With more than half of the city’s Superfund sites on the South Side and more than a third on the West Side, maybe this injustice can be best addressed if we call it by its true name: environmental racism.

Disarray within Environmental Protection Agency’s leadership has drawn attention away from the urgent threat facing Chicago neighborhoods. There are 116 hazardous waste areas in Chicago classified as Superfund sites, 100 of which are on the city’s South or West sides. To cite but one example, the H. Kramer & Co. metal smelting facility in Pilsen has emitted airborne lead for decades, much of which settled in backyards and near a public high school.

A recent EPA policy shift favoring private redevelopment (led by former Superfund head Albert Kelly’s Superfund Task Force) may do more harm than good. In January, EPA published an incomplete list of Superfund sites with significant “redevelopment and commercial potential” based on factors like outside interest and land values. The EPA has also indicated a willingness to “work with developers,” perhaps even after sites are cleaned up. This sudden, proactive emphasis on private redevelopment screams gentrification. Whether the EPA can work with outside developers (whose primary interest is profit) while honoring its obligation to prevent community displacement is an open question. No matter the answer, the EPA has wrongly assumed that outside redevelopment is uniformly in the best interest of communities containing these hazardous sites.”

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