The 2005 Spring session of the Illinois General Assembly produced some modest but important gains in environmental policy, clear defeats of all anti-environment proposals, and wins and losses in the battles over the budget. Thanks to the grassroots lobbying work of Sierra Club members and others across the state, the professional lobbying under the Capitol dome by the Illinois Environmental Council and its affiliates, and the dedication of the legislators in both chambers and parties who made clean air, clean water, and conservation among their priorities in a very busy session. All our work absolutely made a difference, and our state is better off for it.
Among the important improvements made to Illinois law that await Governor Blagojevich’s expected signature are these pollution control measures:
-A ban on two flame-retardant chemicals that are linked to cancer, reproductive damage, and other major health problems. These chemicals do not break down quickly in the environment, and can be found in the dust virtually everywhere – on our furniture, on the floor, in the air. Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who is quickly establishing herself as one of state government’s most effective environmental advocates, did an impressive job neutralizing strong opposition from big chemical polluters. She had to compromise her original proposal to study instead of ban a third chemical of concern, but that study will be underway soon.
-New authority for Illinois EPA to force immediate action to stop toxic waste dumping at contaminated sites, and new requirements for the Agency to notify residents when groundwater may be threatened by toxic waste. Credit Lt. Governor Pat Quinn for drawing attention to these weaknesses in existing law, and IEPA Director Renee Cipriano, Sen. John Cullerton, and Rep. Tom Holbrook to capitalizing on the political moment to close a longstanding loophole in the law.
-The Governor’s proposal to crack down on illegal dumps may have been born of a political clash, but the end result is another needed upgrade in Illinois EPA’s ability to immediately close down unpermitted dumping operations.
-New authority for counties in the Metro East area and the exurban counties beyond Chicago’s current suburbs to adopt the kind of local stormwater management programs that have proven successful in northeastern Illinois at reducing pollution and protecting wetlands.
The clearest trend of the session was the sound defeat of all anti-environment measures. Dirtbikers folded their campaign to open up state parks to ATVs early. There was little support for refunding pollution fees to water polluters. The Governor’s office wisely pulled the plug on a proposal to relax controls on large livestock facilities. And after “The Wetland Destruction Act” passed the Senate while opponents weren’t looking, SB 761 wasn’t even called for a vote in the House Energy and Environment Committee in the face of a storm of opposition from local governments and conservationists.
As the ink dries on the new state budget, the most striking fact is that the key land acquisition funds used by the IDNR to protect natural areas and open space were among the ONLY dedicated funds in state government spared the axe. This is a huge victory for all of us in the Partners for Parks and Wildlife coalition, and a continuing benefit of the tremendous show of support for these programs in 2004 and again this Spring. On the downside, it remains to be seen how broad raids on many funds used by the Illinois EPA will affect their ability to protect out air and water. The help for the CTA, thanks to Rep. Julie Hamos, definitely averts increases in air pollution that service cuts and more fare hikes would produce. More transit funds in St. Clair County will help, while cuts to most downstate transit districts will hurt.
Certainly there were disappointments, including the failure to move a positive wetland protection bill. State Rep. Karen May’s dogged pursuit of a consensus proposal to protect kids from the toxic mercury in car parts fell short this year. But by and large, Illinois environmentalists who were a part of this year’s legislative process can be proud that their effort made a difference for the better.