Activists Rally at Illinois Capitol, Urging Lawmakers to Pass 9 Climate and Environmental Bills

“We can't really afford to keep waiting on this [legislation] when our communities are getting sick or people are dying,” one said.

Hundreds of Illinoisans gather at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, urging lawmakers to support a set of environmental bills on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. Credit: Brian Urbaszewski
Hundreds of Illinoisans gather at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, urging lawmakers to support a set of environmental bills on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. Credit: Brian Urbaszewski

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Hundreds of environmental activists rallied at the Illinois State Capitol, urging legislators to support bills that advance environmental justice and protection and that address climate change. Advocates also delivered a letter to the governor’s office demanding tighter vehicle emissions rules.

Young activists, environmental organizations and community groups mobilized at the capitol six weeks before the end of the legislative session and just days before Earth Day, with nine pieces of environmental legislation, one of which has yet to be introduced, being considered by state lawmakers. Some of the issues the bills touch on include creating regulations for carbon capture and sequestration, removal of coal ash, the disproportionate burden of air pollution on historically marginalized communities and emissions from transportation.

Dany Robles, climate policy director at the Illinois Environmental Council, said he’s noticed more environmental legislation being proposed every session. “I think a lot of it is driven by climate change and noticing that if we’re going to combat climate, we’re also going to have to talk about land use, waste management, energy production and transportation,” he said. 


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The collaboration of environmental justice communities and Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signing of the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act two years ago also have contributed to the momentum and increased awareness of these issues leading to the rally, he said.

The Chicago Environmental Justice Network, or CEJN, a local coalition of environmental justice organizations, drafted one of the proposed bills, the Environmental Justice Act. The bill, awaiting a House vote, would legally define “environmental justice,” require a cumulative impact assessment to determine the potential total impact of new air pollution on nearby communities and give them more say in air permitting decisions that may impact air quality in their area. In the previous legislative session, the bill made it through the House and then died in the Senate.

The rally also comes a month after an analysis by the Guardian found that Chicago’s South and West Sides were the third-worst areas to live in the United States for air pollution. Several activists rallied with signs displaying that finding in hand. Chicago is the only Midwestern city in the 25 cities most polluted by ozone, according to a new report from the American Lung Association.

“We can’t really afford to keep waiting on this [legislation] when our communities are getting sick or people are dying,” said José Miguel Acosta Córdova, a senior transportation policy analyst with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, a member organization of the CEJN.

He spoke at the capitol calling for the passage of the Environmental Justice Act and the Electrify the Transportation Sector Act, which would adopt rules to implement California’s motor vehicle emission standards. They called for Gov. Pritzker to make an executive order to adopt the rules in a letter they delivered to the governor’s office at the rally.

“We need the federal standards to be much stronger than they currently are, and that is where the state standards come in because Illinois is one of the states that’s most impacted by truck traffic,” said Acosta Córdova. “It’s impacting our daily lives and our quality of life.”

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Chicago’s position as a transportation hub comes with health and environmental costs, say activists. The Clean Air Task Force ranks the state fifth for cancer risk from diesel soot and estimates about 400 annual deaths linked to air pollution from diesel. 

Brian Urbaszewski, director of Environmental Health at the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, has been urging the governor to implement the new rules, saying that air pollution health impacts from the transportation sector are distributed unevenly across the state, disproportionately burdening low-income and historically disadvantaged communities.

“This is one step along a journey that’s been going on for quite a while,” said Urbaszewski. “We’re not giving up. This is critical.”

The Clean Power Lake County, an environmental community group, was there pushing for passage of the coal ash bill. The proposed legislation would require increased notice and public hearings to communities ahead of a power plant demolition and the removal of coal ash at the Waukegan Generating Station. It’s waiting for a vote in the rules committee in the House.

“Both the Coal Ash Removal bill and the Environmental Justice Act send a message to corporate polluters that environmental justice communities will no longer be sacrifice zones for industrial or power plant pollution,” said Celeste Flores, a steering committee member of Clean Power Lake County, in a statement by Sierra Club Illinois about the rally.

Some activists are cautiously optimistic about the bills being passed, as they expect pushback from conservative lawmakers, and predict that some bills may take priority over others. 

Robles, of the Illinois Environmental Council, said he is confident about the outcome of this legislative session, in part based on Pritzker’s support for environmental legislation. “We can definitely sense the difference of how many bills we can potentially move across the finish line,” said Robles.