‘Only Time Will Tell’ If Lightfoot’s Sustainability Czar Can Move the Needle on Environmental Justice

The mayor has finally appointed a policy adviser to help guide the city through its environmental challenges. Activists say her pick seems right, but wonder how much of a difference the appointment will make.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot's new sustainability officer starts next week to oversee the administration's environmental policies. One of the biggest environmental issues in Chicago is the proposed move of General Iron Industries from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side. In 2015, smoke from a fire rises at the metal scrapper's Lincoln Park site. (Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago)

This project is a collaboration of seven Chicago newsrooms examining Mayor Lori Lightfoot's administration. Partners are the BGA, Block Club Chicago, Chalkbeat Chicago, The Chicago Reporter, The Daily Line, La Raza and The TRiiBE. It is managed by the Institute for Nonprofit News.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s naming of an urban planner to guide her environmental agenda is receiving positive reactions from activists and community leaders. Nevertheless, they remain wary about whether the city’s new chief sustainability officer will be given enough power and resources to make meaningful change.

As a candidate, Lightfoot promised to revive a fully operational city department of environment to tackle pollution after former Mayor Rahm Emanuel disbanded the unit to cut costs. While Emanuel said environmental enforcement would be dispersed to other city agencies, a 2019 Better Government Association investigation found inspections and citations plummeted during his tenure.

Late last year, amid a massive budget deficit, Lightfoot scaled back her robust environmental promises. Instead, she created a new “office of environment and sustainability” to develop a vision for environmental policy and to be initially staffed by just one person with no enforcement powers. After more than a year in office, Lightfoot has appointed Angela Tovar to that post. Tovar, a Chicago native, starts next week.

“There have been sustainability officers before and how helpful they’ve been to us is debatable,” said Peggy Salazar, director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force. “It depends on the amount of teeth her position is given because it looks good on the surface. Only time will tell if it really does make a difference.”

The mayor’s office said Tovar will “help advance the mayor’s environmental and climate agenda” by working closely with different city departments and communicating with neighborhood advocates and policy experts.

Angela Tovar, Chicago’s chief sustainability officer. (City of Chicago)

“Not just the mayor’s office but the city at large needs to be much more responsive to environmental justice issues, to adapting and helping mitigate the effects of climate change as well as what a broader transition to a carbon-free economy would look like,” Dan Lurie, Lightfoot’s policy director, said in an interview with the BGA. “That is going to be the role of the chief sustainability officer and then over time, the plan is for that role to transition into more of a department-like function.”

Tovar most recently worked for Cook County’s environment and sustainability department and grew up on Chicago’s Southeast Side, one of the city’s most environmentally burdened neighborhoods. Activists and environmentalists familiar with Tovar’s work said they think she is up to the task of leading the city’s response to pressing environmental challenges.

“I’m really excited that she got this position,” said Gina Ramirez, a Chicago community organizer and outreach manager with the Natural Resources Defense Council who knows Tovar through her work with a coalition of Southeast Side residents fighting to rid their neighborhood of petroleum coke. “It's really important that they put someone in this position who has experience working with grassroots groups, who comes from an impacted neighborhood, because she’s willing to uplift the community’s vision.”

Those who have not worked with Tovar complimented her experience in the field, which also includes directing sustainability policy and research for a non-profit organization in New York City’s Bronx borough. Many noted her work on issues of environmental justice, which means focusing on low-income and minority communities most adversely affected by pollution.

“She has excellent qualifications and I really appreciate that they did the work to hire somebody from an environmental justice background and who prioritizes environmental justice so much,” said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council.

Lens on Lightfoot

But Walling and others also said they are waiting to see how much responsibility and what kind of resources Tovar is given, saying Lightfoot’s move still falls far short of what she promised as a candidate.

“This appointment reflects her (Lightfoot’s) priorities, but we still don’t consider this a campaign promise kept,” Walling said.

It remains unclear what the specifics of Tovar’s role will look like when it comes to managing some of the toughest environmental challenges Chicago faces. That includes the ongoing demolition of the former Crawford Coal Plant in Little Village, where a botched implosion of the plant’s smokestack in April blanketed the neighborhood in dust during the respiratory coronavirus pandemic.

Email strings obtained by the BGA and Block Club Chicago showed Lightfoot and her advisers were warned of the potential health risks by activists ahead of the demolition. Activists were also concerned about residents and neighbors being given little to no notice ahead of the planned work.

Asked what tools Tovar will have at her disposal to help prevent a similar fiasco from occurring as demolition continues at the site or on other projects that could pose environmental risks, Lurie pointed to the role he said Acting Chief Sustainability Officer Elise Zelechowski has played coordinating with departments and community members to identify policies the city should follow going forward to balance economic benefits with the environmental impact of different projects.

Environmental activists said they are hoping for the best from Lightfoot’s new sustainability officer when she steps into that role, but remain disappointed with the mayor’s record on environmental issues so far.

“She’s appointing Tovar at this time while we’re still opposing General Iron, when Hilco is still in the process of demolishing that building,” said Salazar, referencing plans to move a metal-shredding operator to the Southeast Side and the name of the company behind the Crawford Coal Plant demolition. “I’m hoping this isn’t just an attempt to placate us.”