Watchdog Slams Chicago's Air Pollution Oversight

Audit by the inspector general follows a BGA/Medill investigation that found under Mayor Rahm Emanuel the city's environmental enforcement declined amid cuts to inspection staff.

Bonfilio Reyes (left) and Mark Breihan, both of Pilsen, have complained to the city about strong chemical odors coming from an industrial laundry next to their homes. Following a BGA investigation into lax environmental oversight by city officials, a Chicago inspector general's office report states the city has been letting polluters off the hook. (Brett Chase/BGA)

After former Mayor Rahm Emanuel gutted the city’s environmental enforcement agency in 2011, hundreds of factories belched out toxic pollutants unchecked, potentially adding to health risks throughout huge swaths of the city, a report published by the city’s internal watchdog found.

In a 39-page audit, Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson said the city did not reach its stated goals and as a result more than 500 particularly toxic sites were inspected infrequently for air pollution, including nearly a 100 that were not inspected at all in a three-year period starting in 2015.

The findings follow a Better Government Association/Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism investigation published earlier this year that showed Emanuel’s elimination of the city Department of Environment cut the number of enforcement agents in half over his eight-year run as mayor. The BGA analysis also showed enforcement and inspections declined significantly under the former mayor.

In an interview on Monday, Ferguson said his audit speaks to the same problems the BGA noted in its investigation, which took a broader look beyond just air pollution at environmental enforcement under Emanuel.  

“The two reports align very nicely,” Ferguson said.

“At the very point in time we’re turning to a more holistic view of environmental issues, Chicago really ought to be a model,” Ferguson said.  “If we do not do a front-end analysis to determine what it takes to accomplish that, then we’re talking a good game but not walking the walk.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot repeatedly promised during her successful campaign that she’d bring back a city department of environment but has not yet done so.

Ferguson’s report examined how well the city’s public health department oversaw air pollution at more than 1,500 facilities throughout Chicago. That number includes about 500 sites that state and federal officials say emit hazardous air pollutants.

OIG graph
From the Chicago inspector general's "Department of Public Health Air Pollution Enforcement Audit." 

“In 2011, the prior administration dismantled the Department of Environment, scattering its programs and regulatory functions across nine other city departments,’’ Ferguson said in a statement that accompanied  the audit. 

The report focused on the city public health department and its air pollution enforcement program. Among the audit’s findings:

  • Between the start of 2015 and the end of 2017, the city met its own inspection goals at only 17 percent of the 502 facilities it intended to visit every year. In addition, nearly 100 of those facilities received no inspections at all in that three-year period.

  • Hundreds of facilities that needed annual “Certificates of Operation” from the city received them less than half the time.

  • Inspectors did not categorize potential air pollution emissions at nearly 359 facilities, leaving a lack of records about how much pollution the facilities are emitting. 

  • Department heads did not ensure violations identified by inspectors were corrected, leaving the possibility that residents were put at risk even after the city knew there was a problem.

“Gaps in (Chicago’s) air pollution permit and inspections program are increasing the risk that facilities emit more pollution than allowed by law,” the report stated. “Violations are more likely to go undiscovered.”

City health officials told the inspector general there aren’t enough inspection staff, the report said. The city also told the inspector general it intends to hire a consultant to evaluate staffing levels, improve its record keeping and step up its compliance oversight.

While Ferguson’s report lambasted the city for its lack of controls over its inspection program, he did give the city high marks for responding to specific complaints.

Inspection map
From the Chicago inspector general's "Department of Public Health Air Pollution Enforcement Audit." 

The audit reported the city’s public health department resolves roughly 84 percent of air-quality complaints within 24 hours, but should record complaint-based inspections “more consistently.”

Ferguson told the BGA that Emanuel’s decision to eliminate the environment department lacked thorough analysis that may have harmed residents, particularly on the South and West sides where the potential for pollution is the greatest. At the time, Emanuel insisted that environmental oversight would actually be more robust.  

Emanuel couldn’t be reached for comment Monday.

In a statement from city health department spokesman Andy Buchanan, the administration said: “We take this report seriously and acknowledge there is more work to do.”  

The state requires the city to inspect nearly 100 facilities of hazardous air pollution sites, including factories, auto repair shops and dry cleaners, every year. The city set a more aggressive goal for itself in stating it would inspect more than 500 facilities every year, but couldn’t meet its own targets. “To promote continuous quality improvement, (the department) intentionally sets aspirational performance metrics that are not met 100 percent of the time,” according to a city response in the audit.

Community groups who work with the city say the health department has been understaffed.

“They are overwhelmed,” said Olga Bautista, a Southeast Side Chicago resident and activist. “The Department of Public Health has been showing up on the southeast side but every time we met with them, they seemed stretched thin.”

 

Environmental reporting at the BGA is supported by Joel M. Friedman, President of The Alvin H. Baum Family Fund.