Check out our page of COVID-19 resources for the Southwest side. We’ll keep updating as our support efforts continue to take shape.
In recent weeks, we at Neighbors For Environmental Justice have been asked what the COVID-19 global pandemic means for us, what it means for our campaign to prevent MAT Asphalt from receiving a ten year permit, and what it means for environmental justice. Those are big questions, and right now it’s hard to be certain about anything. But we feel it is important to try and answer anyway.
Here’s the thing about COVID-19: it changes everything, and it changes nothing.
Of course shutting down schools, parks, bars, restaurants and businesses is a huge change. Many people have lost their jobs, and we’re all trying to cope with shock, uncertainty, fear of illness, grief, and the strange tension between the monotony of trying to shelter in place and the knowledge that ordinary activities like going to the grocery store now carry deadly risk.
But that risk is not distributed equally. It never is. It’s just magnified: people already made vulnerable by racism, disinvestment and discrimination have now been made even more vulnerable. People who are poor, or Black, or Latinx, were already more likely to have polluting industries in their neighborhoods. Now, that same pollution has made them more likely to die or experience serious complications from COVID-19. Even as whole industries are shut down, poor people have to keep working. And as with nearly every health disparity, Black Americans are being disproportionately affected.
Yet at the same time, the sweeping actions taken by the city and the state to slow the spread of the virus have revealed what is truly possible when we get serious about public health. We are shutting down schools, bars, restaurants, parks and businesses because keeping them open right now will cause more people to become sick and die. If we can close schools and bars and restaurants in the name of saving lives, we can close an asphalt plant. We can legally compel it to move far away from where people live, work, and play on a daily basis. Air pollution is making people sick. Air pollution is making people die. Like COVID-19, it reflects and magnifies inequality.
The Illinois EPA has indefinitely postponed their public hearing scheduled for March 23rd, and the public comment period that went with it. The hearing was about a proposed 10 year permit for MAT Asphalt, the hot mix asphalt plant that opened suddenly across from McKinley Park, less than 1000 feet from an elementary school and neighboring homes. Cancelling the hearing was the responsible decision – but so is denying the permit.
Right now, we don’t know when the hearing will take place. We do know that MAT Asphalt has again resumed operating on an expired permit, with the blessing of the IEPA. Neighbors For Environmental Justice remains committed to closing MAT Asphalt, but for right now we are turning our attention towards the immediate support of our community. We are figuring out how we can most effectively help, and we will be here for the duration of this crisis and beyond.
The word crisis originally meant ‘decision.’ We are now at a point of decision. Some will use this crisis to attack environmental enforcement, like the political leadership at the US EPA which has suspended enforcement of environmental laws under the pretext of the pandemic. Others will argue that our economic recovery requires us to set aside environmental concerns, and we should welcome the proliferation of last-mile delivery warehouses and truck traffic.
But there is another choice we can make: we can choose to address the inequalities this crisis has laid bare. We can say that lives shortened by pollution are just as important as lives shortened by coronavirus. We can join progressive groups across Chicago and commit to an economic recovery that is also an environmental recovery. We must choose the path of health that is also the path of justice.
We are only as safe as the most vulnerable in our community. We are all in this together.