Melba Lara: Air pollution from businesses in Chicago can plague nearby residents with foul odors and health concerns. But a new investigation from the Chicago Sun-Times finds that in the last few years, more than half of the air pollution citations from city inspectors were dropped. Reporter Brett Chase joined WBEZ's Clare Lane to talk about what he found.
Clare Lane: So you looked at Health Department citations for Chicago's primary air pollution law, from 2018 through 2022. Tell us more about what the data shows.
Brett Chase: There were 69 air pollution citations, um, of that number 39 were dropped, 29 were found liable and there's still one case pending. And so that means that more than half of these tickets just didn't stick for whatever reason. Now in some cases there were these settlements and these were particularly interesting because these are some big businesses that have the potential to emit a lot of air pollution. And what I found here, that was really surprising was that in some cases like entire slates of violation, not just air pollution, but you know what I mean, just dozens of violations were wiped out without any requirement for corrective action.
Clare Lane: You report on how a number of these businesses are in communities of color and you focus on one, Pullman Innovations and South Deering. Tell us what you heard from residents there,
Brett Chase: They complain about rancid smell, putrid smell um, described to me as you know, rotting corpse, feces, rotten eggs. There's one woman I interviewed who said that she would love to have a garden, but she can't stand the smell to go out there. This doesn't happen every single day and every hour of the day, but when it does, my understanding is it's quite powerful and quite unpleasant.
Clare Lane: And so even with sort of, those descriptions and the testimonies, I guess from residents, how did the city respond to that in this case?
Brett Chase: Well, honestly, I quote an inspection report that said the same thing. The inspector went out, actually just days after the city settled its complaints against Pullman, it was about a year ago. And inspector goes out and writes in the report "strong odors of sour rotten eggs similar to a vomit odor was observed. This odor was very uncomfortable to inhale as it instantly made me nauseous and made me want to vomit." Now there was no ticket, but there was an indication that you know, we're watching them. You know, in some cases you'll see a report from an inspector where they say, ok, we see some stuff out here, it's not good but there's enforcement pending. So there you go. We're not going to give them another ticket. And that is something I ran by the Health Department. Does this happen? If you are you know, in the process of working out these agreements, I'll call them, you know with a polluter and they have another complaint and the inspector goes out and says, yeah, there's still a problem. Do not give them a ticket. Well, a lot of times they don't. And why that's significant is because some of these cases can drag on for a year or two.
Clare Lane: I guess in general how has the Chicago Health Department responded to your reporting?
Brett Chase: I mean, they you know, they said I should probably look at other air quality violations and I admittedly went at a very narrow slice of this. You know, air pollution - but air pollution can be a very significant thing. You know, it could be, you know, dust from a a construction site or it could be, you know, toxic chemicals.
Clare Lane: I've been speaking with Chicago Sun-Times reporter Brett Chase about air pollution citations in Chicago. Thanks Brett.
Brett Chase: Thank you.
Melba Lara: That was WBEZ's Clare Lane and Sun-Times reporter Brett Chase. If you have a topic you want us to cover on our weekly climate segment, you can email climate@WBEZ.org. This is WBEZ.
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