After years of delay, Evanston moves forward with environmental justice investigation


Daily file illustration by Catherine Buchaniec

In its 2020 environmental justice resolution, Evanston pledged to conduct an environmental justice investigation. Now, the project is finally coming to fruition.

Lily Carey, In Focus Editor

Janet Alexander Davis, an Evanston resident of 80 years, lived much of her life wondering why her neighborhood always seemed to smell. 

A few years ago, she discovered the source: the Church Street waste transfer station, a garbage dump in the 5th Ward.

“I finally realized that there was no reason for this garbage dump to be in a neighborhood, in walking distance of businesses, of homes, of the high school,” Davis said. “I started, with a lot of other people, to start picketing and trying to get rid of it.”

But the waste transfer station is still there. Run by garbage disposal company Advanced Disposal, the station has a proven negative impact on air quality levels in the surrounding neighborhoods, which are predominantly Black. 

This waste station isn’t the only health injustice Evanston residents are facing. From questions of water contamination to proven disparities in life expectancy, residents of historically redlined neighborhoods such as the 5th Ward have faced disproportionate disadvantages for decades. 

In the coming year, city officials hope to address these issues, in part by launching an environmental justice investigation. First proposed in 2020, Mayor Daniel Biss announced in an October press release that the project was coming to fruition after nearly two and a half years of delay.

Though it’s still in the planning phases, Biss said he hopes the data collected from the project will point the city to concrete steps for equitably combating climate change.

“It’s not enough to just do the investigation,” Biss said. “You have to mitigate the issues so that we can actually begin to do away with the inequities in air quality, inequities in access to tree canopy and parklands and so forth, that underlie the challenge we’re talking about.”

What will the investigation look like?

According to Biss, the goal of the environmental justice investigation is to map data on environmental inequities using a Geographic Information System mapping tool. The map will help outline where environmental disadvantages in Evanston are located in a way that’s easy for anyone to understand, he said.

While planning the investigation, city government worked closely with Environmental Justice Evanston, a branch of local environmental advocacy group Citizens’ Greener Evanston.

In the fall, the city’s Health and Human Services Department released its latest report on the Evanston Project for the Local Assessment of Needs, which aims to create a solid plan for combating health inequities in the city.

The 2022 EPLAN report combined data and resident input, showing that Evanston residents in the 5th Ward face far more adverse health effects than residents in most other parts of the city. 

Jerri Garl, who co-chairs EJE along with Davis, said the upcoming investigation could help expose environmental causes behind many trends revealed by EPLAN.

Like with the EPLAN report, EJE also wants community engagement incorporated into the investigation. Incorporating residents’ lived experiences is also essential to getting the full picture of environmental injustices throughout the city and building trust in the community, Garl emphasized.

“The whole goal here was to uncover some of those decision-making processes… that lead to these kinds of environmental injustices, whether they’re intentional or not,” Garl said.

According to EJE member Robyn Hurtig, the organization already started conducting listening sessions with small numbers of residents from the 2nd and 5th Wards. 

Listening sessions will also help combat a broader lack of public engagement, which Davis said was a longstanding issue among her neighbors in the 5th Ward.

“A lot of times people don’t know that we have rights that we don’t really use, or we have a way that we can solve things within our own community, if we just understood what was going on,” she said.

What are concrete next steps?

After facing resident criticism for inactivity on its Climate Action and Resilience Plan, city government pledged to make sustainability a higher priority going forward. In its 2023 fiscal year budget, the city allocated $100,000 specifically to the investigation, Biss and Garl said. 

EJE members said the city will use that money to hire facilitators for additional listening sessions. According to Davis, limited staff prevented the organization from diving further into listening sessions and data collection last year.

While EJE is “the entity that stayed the course” through years of environmental advocacy, Davis said, it has limited resources. The city has the resources to fully conduct the investigation, but Biss said COVID-19 has caused major delays in the investigation’s launch.

However, Garl said the time is now for the city to focus specifically on environmental justice. 

“The mayor said in his press release, ‘We will continue with the listening sessions, we’re going to continue to work together on the mapping tool and we’ll continue to work together to help shape this investigation,’” Garl said. “But the burden is on the city to take action.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @lilylcarey

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