Long before the fight with General Iron, the southeast side battled issues of environmental racism. It’s as much a part of the community history as the steel mills of yesteryear.

I remember being at a community meeting 7 years ago that was held at “The Zone” a Christian youth center in the community of Hegewisch. The meeting was centered around pollution on the southeast side and what options residents had. A young woman got up and spoke about how she saw some birds drop out the sky and die when one of the factories released gas from a smokestack. She spoke about waking up every day having to remove the ash off her car and neighbors having chronic asthma because of the smoke. This was years prior to General Iron trying to move to the community.

What we saw with General Iron, and what lead to the demise of the project, was the blatant disregard for the health of the poor residents of the southeast side. They wanted to open their new plant in Hegewisch after they were run off the city’s northside by a more affluent community. It was seen as a move so egregious that the city didn’t allow the plant to open, even after approving various permits.

But environmental racism is more than just polluting factories. In 2011 the small Illinois town of Cairo was front and center on a different type of environmental justice issue. Cairo sits on the border of Illinois, in between the Mississippi and Ohio River. In 2011 rainfall and flooding threatened the integrity of the levees that keep Cairo dry. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had a contingency plan that clearly stated in the event the levees might be compromised to release the water onto flood plains in Missouri. But they didn’t do it. The Missouri Attorney General filed a lawsuit to stop the floodway from being activated. He wrote that the farmland composed of the flood plains was more important and valuable than the homes of the black residents of Cairo.

Eventually the water was released onto the flood plains, but only after causing millions of dollars in damage to Cairo and the surrounding communities. Major General Michael Walsh, then in charge of the Army Corps, left his post shortly after it was evident that his delay for opening the levees was based on political and racial motives.

An environmental issue that hits home for me, is the way erosion and the rising water levels of Lake Michigan is being handled on the South and North sides of the city. The disparity in resources and the attention to the issue is cause for concern. Representatives on the Southside are holding the same meetings, voicing the same concerns, but not getting half the attention. Are the condo associations on the southside not as important as those north? Is it not the same Lake Michigan water flooding their basements as well?

If we are truly to move forward as a society where we say everyone is important, then we must be intentional with what we allow to happen in the communities of our most vulnerable.

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