George Cardenas is Full of Hot Air

Dana Blanchard

Alderman George Cardenas introduced a resolution declaring a climate emergency in Chicago. He helped create the emergency in his own ward.

On January 15th, Ald. George Cardenas (12th Ward) co-introduced a climate emergency resolution to the Chicago City Council meeting that concludes with: “the City of Chicago hereby declares a state of climate emergency that threatens the health and well-being of Chicago, its inhabitants, and its environment.” On February 10th the Chicago City Council voted to approve the resolution, but because it is a non-binding resolution, it does not require the city to take any action. Instead, it consists of many pledges that the council will work with Mayor Lori Lightfoot to, among other things, develop a budget to promote “urgent climate action” and reduce the city’s carbon footprint. 

Why such a toothless response to a real emergency? One glaring problem is that one of the aldermen who introduced this resolution, Ald. George Cardenas, falls short in his own track record on environmental issues. Cardenas, who chairs the Health and Environmental Protection Committee on the city council, is the embodiment of a government official who says the right things but does nothing to stop a climate crisis that is already impacting the poor and working class across this city. 

I live in the 12th ward, where Cardenas is our alderman. During the time Cardenas has served on the city council’s committee on environmental protection, he has actually allowed more polluters to come into our neighborhood and done nothing to reduce pollution in his own ward. Before 2017 there were already alarming levels of industrial pollution in the 12th ward. The problem was only made worse with the opening of a MAT asphalt plant on W. Pershing Road across the street from busy McKinley Park and 600 feet from a school that serves nearly 800 students. It has been revealed that Cardenas was in communication with the MAT asphalt owners about the plant before it was built and gave them the green light to move into a location near a school, a park, and many residential houses. According to the United States EPA’s EJSCREEN, within one mile of the MAT asphalt plant there are 38,000 residents. Of those residents, 74% are Black or Latinx, 12% are Asian, 11% are white, and 10,950 are children ages one to seventeen.

MAT asphalt is only one among seventeen major polluters (as classified by the EPA) in our area. Their process of manufacturing asphalt has added to the clouds of harmful particulate matter and industrial dust in the air above, not to mention the estimated additional two hundred trucks a day that carry the materials to and from the plant that add more diesel fumes to an already inundated area. 

In October 2018, the Natural Resource Defense Council released a “cumulative impacts” map of Chicago taking a combined look at environmental conditions along with sociodemographic characteristics that are linked with increased negative impact from environmental pollution. This map shows the area along the industrial corridor bounded by the Stevenson Expressway and the Dan Ryan Expressway to be deep red, an indication of not only high levels of particulate matter and pollution in the air but also a population of residents who are not given adequate resources to mitigate the health impacts of that pollution. That red cloud is my neighborhood. That map is one more reason to call Cardenas out on his hypocrisy. 

Chicago is in fact facing a climate emergency, and the impact of this environmental catastrophe will severely impact the health and well-being of Chicagoans. With the disappearance of two Rogers Park beaches from storms in January, the fact that Chicago has asthma rates three times the national average and the continued cycle of polar vortexes and heat waves, it is clear that our city is witnessing the impact of a full-scale environmental crisis. 

However, a non-binding resolution with no enforcement plan for stopping the city’s biggest polluters and no plans to expand mass public transit or provide health services for those already impacted by environmental hazards is not enough. 

Solving the climate crisis in Chicago is not about writing strong statements on paper.

Solving the climate crisis or stopping the pollution problem in Chicago is not about writing strong statements on paper. It is not about having another commission or committee get experts to “study” whether or not there is a pollution problem in Chicago. The only way to win real justice for the communities most impacted by the corporate polluters in our city is to center the voices and listen to the demands of the people most impacted by this crisis. Those demands include: eliminating the MAT asphalt plant, creating a community-based process for approving new contracts to any industries that seek permits for polluting in our neighborhood, and having a strict enforcement of pollution limit for industry that is already here by funding more staff to investigate pollution complaints from community members. 

On January 16th, nearly 300 people gathered at the National Latino Education Institute on Pershing just steps from both MAT asphalt plant and McKinley Park to organize around the issue of environmental justice. The meeting was organized by Southwest Environmental Alliance, one of the community coalitions formed around the struggle to kick out polluters on the South and West sides of the city. 

There is an upcoming Illinois Environmental Protection Agency hearing about renewing the permit for the asphalt plant on March 23rd. While we plan to mobilize for the hearing in large numbers, we also talked about how this problem is not just about one plant or one permit. This is a larger problem: that our community is seen as disposable by our city and state governments. If we want to win environmental justice here in McKinley Park and in Chicago, it must be won from the bottom up. Thanks but no thanks, Cardenas. Your resolution is far too little and far too late for us. We’ll take it from here. 

Updates on the struggle:

For more details on the organizing efforts and the history of the MAT asphalt plant check out this article from the South Side Weekly

The MAT asphalt Permit Hearing will take place on Monday, March 23rd at Horizon Science Academy, located at 2455 W. Pershing Rd in McKinley Park. The hearing will start at 6:30 PM. This hearing is our communities’ opportunity to get involved in the permit process and make a strong case for why MAT Asphalt should not receive a 10-year pollution permit.

Dana Blanchard is a member of the Rampant editorial collective.