CHICAGO | It wasn't difficult to find the biggest polluters in Jerry Mead-Lucero's Chicago neighborhood, including a coal-fired power plant that coated cars and houses with grit and a smelter blamed for high levels of airborne lead near an elementary school.
The real challenge was getting regulators, lawmakers and others to act when residents in Pilsen, a mostly Hispanic enclave on the city's Lower West Side, complained that they were exposed to more than their fair share of pollution. Activists won the big battles — the power plant is closed and the smelter agreed to sharply cut emissions — but the fight to ensure that abandoned factory sites and other hazards are cleaned up continues.
Now Mead-Lucero is using his experience and energy statewide, as a member of a new Environmental Justice Commission charged with identifying ways to ensure that no Illinois communities are disproportionately affected by pollution and negative health impacts because of their income or race.
The panel — including lawmakers, regulators and representatives from environmental, industry and community groups — met Wednesday for the first time since Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill to establish the commission two years ago.
The commission will determine its top priorities in coming weeks and include them in a report to the governor and lawmakers in October.
Mead-Lucero said he wants the state to address the total pollution burden from multiple sources in some neighborhoods, rather than just regulating one factory or site at a time.
Other suggested the commission could help generate research on health and pollution and educate communities on how to get involved.
Industry representatives cautioned that any new laws or other changes that might result from the panel's work should help streamline the regulatory process and avoid burdensome fees.
But industry also wants to "understand communities' concerns," said Alec Messina, a commission member and executive director of the Illinois Environmental Regulatory Group, an organization that represents manufacturers and industries in regulatory decisions.
The concept of environmental justice isn't new, but it was institutionalized in 1994, when President Clinton signed an executive order directing all federal agencies to ensure their policies did not contribute to unequal health and environmental impacts on low-income and minority communities.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has been working to address similar issues, but the new commission's task is broader — it's charged with advising the governor, legislators and other state agencies about policies, laws and other measures that could help protect communities, said Ken Page the IEPA's environmental justice officer.
For example, if a neighborhood is polluted because of trucks, trains and other vehicles, transportation agencies might need to be involved. If children are poisoned by lead-based paint, the housing or health departments might be involved, he said.
Commission Chairwoman Kimberly Wasserman Nieto — a Chicago activist who was the 2013 North American winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize for her efforts to close the city's last two coal-fired plants, in Pilsen and her neighborhood, Little Village — said environmental justice isn't just a big-city issue and doesn't just affect minorities.
"There doesn't have to be a high concentration of people; there are a lot of rural folks who are also poor" and vulnerable to polluting industries, she said. "I think the reality of environmental justice in every community is different."