Fighting for Environmental Justice on Chicago's Southeast Side

The Environmental Advocacy Center (EAC) represents Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF), a community organization that advocates to preserve, protect, and restore natural resources on the Southeast Side of Chicago, an area which has long suffered the effects of industrial pollution.  Our past efforts to fight pollution on the Southeast Side included successful advocacy for more controls on petroleum coke storage and regulation of use, storage, and monitoring of manganese, a neurotoxin found in high levels at Southeast Side air monitors.

SETF launched the Stop General Iron Campaign to oppose the relocation of the General Iron scrap metal recycling facility from the Lincoln Park neighborhood to the Southeast Side.  The General Iron operation in Lincoln Park was cited by federal, state and local environmental authorities for numerous environmental violations and was strongly opposed by Lincoln Park residents as a heavily polluting neighboring facility.

Working with other Southeast side organizations People for Community Recovery and the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, EAC representation has included multiple advocacy routes.  EAC has filed comments in opposition to draft permits, participated in hearings before Illinois EPA and the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH), as well as outreach to federal, state and Chicago legislators. In May 2021, the legal team and community groups succeeded in convincing CDPH to deny a large recycling facility permit to the facility for a move to the SE Side. RMG, the company that acquired General Iron’s assets in advance of the planned move, is now appealing that decision.  EAC has worked in coalition to file civil rights complaints with both the USEPA and federal department of Housing and Urban Development, the latter of which led to a historic May 2022 settlement with the City that sets a nationwide precedent for how municipalities with histories of structural environmental racism can take a community-led approach to lasting reform. 

EAC students have been engaged in all aspects of the Clinic’s work on the Southeast Side and have had the opportunity to engage with clients and partner attorney organizations, formulate strategy, engage in advocacy, and prepare the research and writing groundwork to support these efforts.

Protecting the Chicago River by Suing Trump Tower

The EAC is proud to represent Friends of the Chicago River (FOCR) and the Sierra Club Illinois (SC IL), in conjunction with Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, in the matter of the People of the State of Illinois v. 401 N. Wabash Venture, LLC, LLC, 18-CH-10229 (Cook County Chancery). The case started in 2018 our clients discovered that Trump Tower in downtown Chicago was withdrawing up to 20 million gallons of Chicago River water every day without ever applying for the proper required federal permit.  After EAC lawyers and our clients announced a formal intent to sue Trump Tower to force it into compliance, the State of Illinois filed suit against Trump International for Clean Water Act (“CWA”) violations. 

Most recently, students were able to participate in the discovery process by conducting research for legal issues and helping prepare materials for the discovery depositions of expert witnesses from both sides of the litigation. Students also participated in strategy discussions with clients and engaged with experts across different fields such as ecology and economics. Earlier stages of the litigation saw students conduct fact depositions and draft all manner of pleadings, permit comments, and merits and discovery briefs. 

Opposing More Trash Trucks Driving through an Environmental Justice Community in West Chicago

The EAC represents People Opposing DuPage Environmental Racism (PODER), a committee of Immigrant Solidarity DuPage (ISD), a grassroots community organization whose mission is to educate, organize and mobilize DuPage County around the rights and collective struggles of the Latino community. PODER is a subcommittee of ISD dedicated to environmental issues that works to combat environmental injustice and racism in their local community. West Chicago is a majority-minority community located in DuPage County, with 52% of households speaking a language other than English in the home.

Lakeshore Recycling Systems (LRS) applied to the City of West Chicago for siting approval for its proposed expansion of a waste transfer station in September 2022. PODER opposed approval of the facility for a variety of reasons, but most broadly because it would result in disproportionate environmental burdens to be borne by the predominantly minority city of West Chicago for the benefit of a predominantly white service area. EAC represented PODER in public hearings in front of the City of West Chicago in January 2023, after which the City Council adopted the report of the hearing officer and enacted an ordinance approving LRS’s waste transfer station in February 2023. PODER then decided to appeal the City Council’s approval of LRS’s application to the Illinois Pollution Control Board, which is currently pending.

EAC students have prepared clients for live testimony, drafted legal documents for the City Council and Illinois Pollution Control Board, and lead regularly consultation with the client.

Accelerating the Transition to Clean Energy and Electrification of Transportation and Buildings

The EAC is engaged in various efforts in Illinois to move our economy toward cleaner sources of electricity and away from fossil fuel uses in our transportation system and buildings. Recently, the EAC has pursued two projects in this space.

The EAC represents the Respiratory Health Association (RHA) in its efforts to accelerate the transition away from dirty diesel engines idling in Illinois communities. Specifically, RHA was a party to “beneficial electrification” proceedings in which the Illinois Commerce Commission is considering whether to approve plans of electric utilities to meet the electrification goals of the landmark Clean and Equitable Jobs Act. The EAC represented RHA as an independent party – both before the Illinois Commerce Commission and, now, before Illinois appellate courts in two separate judicial appeals of Commission orders – but works in a coalition of organizations including the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Counsel, Sierra Club, and Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, to push for beneficial electrification plans that maximize public health and climate benefits while centering equity concerns. EAC students respond to discovery requests, develop expert witness testimony, draft sections of briefs, and counsel clients on some of the hottest issues in energy law. 

The EAC also continues its longstanding partnership with Elevate Energy, an award-winning, Illinois-based non-profit, that promotes energy efficiency and electrification for all—with an emphasis on expanding programs in low-income communities.  As part of EAC’s work with Elevate Energy, EAC students have conducted research on complex energy issues and prepared a comparative analysis of building electrification programs throughout the country to look for ways to improve electrification programs required under Illinois’s Clean and Equitable Jobs Act.  Students prepared a research white paper that concluded with specific, actionable recommendations and delivered oral presentations to set out their analysis and work with various policy and implementation experts from Elevate to expand their research focus and develop specific policy proposals. 

Supporting the Evolving Struggle of Residents in East Chicago, Indiana, to Clean Up Historic Contamination and Protect their Community from Ongoing Pollution

The EAC, in partnership with the University of Chicago Abrams Environmental Law Clinic, represents the East Chicago Calumet Coalition Community Advisory Group on issues related to the cleanup of the USS Lead Superfund site in East Chicago, Indiana, and to push regulators to better protect their community from a panoply of industrial polluters. The former public housing complex on the site has been demolished and U.S. EPA and the City of East Chicago have approved a plan for redevelopment of this portion of the site for a warehousing development. The clinics participated extensively in commenting on the redevelopment and cleanup plans. The privately-owned residential homes within the Superfund site have also now been cleaned.

Because the pollution in East Chicago is extensive and goes beyond the USS Lead site, the team also investigated and inventoried other polluting industries in East Chicago. This work recently resulted in a meeting with the Regional Administrator of U.S. EPA Region 5 and the heads of each of relevant division heads, to discuss a particular hazardous waste facility that is a serial violator as well as broader enforcement and oversight needs.  EAC’s advocacy focus on both on deep scrutiny of particular problem facilities as well as broader regional resource and strategic needs is aimed at long-term and big-picture improvements in air and water quality in East Chicago.

The work in East Chicago has enabled clinic students to participate in a broad range of environmental advocacy, including regular meetings with the community clients, participation in and presentations during meetings with government agencies, engagement with engineering experts, and research and writing in support of the work.

Advancing Community Priorities in a Federal Hazardous Waste Cleanup in DePue, Illinois

The EAC represents the Village of DePue, a town of 1,800, comprised of largely low-income residents, located in central Illinois. DePue was left contaminated with dangerous heavy metals after decades of industrial operations—including a zinc smelter, fertilizer manufacturing operations, and lithopone paint manufacturing—ended in the 1980s. DePue was named a Superfund site in 1999— a designation that means DePue is one of the most contaminated and dangerous places for people and the environment in the United States.

EAC students have worked extensively to develop advocacy strategies to push enforcement agencies and the responsible companies to conduct an appropriate cleanup of the contamination in DePue. Student efforts have included information gathering and analysis, consultation with scientific experts within both the Northwestern University academic community and the outside scientific community and work with such experts on preparing reports, formal comments and advocacy pieces, and the promotion of media coverage.  With the help of the Northwestern Chemistry Department faculty and students and Groundswell Educational Films, the EAC created an interactive website, that enables users to click on specific locations on a map of DePue to determine what contaminants are present and the dangers the contaminants pose. Most recently, an EAC student worked with an environmental consultant to develop a presentation on complex legal and technical issues related to remediating the Village’s prized, namesake lake to U.S. EPA and state regulators at a community meeting.