It’s not every day that one has the opportunity to celebrate the signing of a bill with the Governor himself; and it’s especially not every day that the bill signing is held at an urban nature center complete with goats, geese, Shetland ponies, and a butterfly sanctuary.
Yesterday was that day for me. On a beautifully sunny morning, I stood outside in the Eden Place Nature Center with Gov. Quinn and representatives from community organizations, faith and environmental groups, and staff of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to watch as SB2193 was signed into law. SB2193, known as the Environmental Justice Act, creates an Environmental Justice Commission which will bring together legislators, departmental heads, and individuals from businesses, environmental groups, and community groups. The Commission will assess Illinois’ current laws and policies to ensure that no person—regardless of race, age, or socio-economic status—bears a disproportionate effect of environmental pollution.
The Governor, who has long been a supporter of environmental work, spoke about the importance of this legislation, commenting that, “Our constitution says that everyone has a fundamental right to a healthful environment” and that “it’s important that we avoid at all cost, and stop, any kind of environmental racism. We don’t want certain areas to be the dumping grounds—that’s just not right.”
The site for this bill signing couldn’t have been more perfect. Eden Place Nature Center exists today only because a community got together and refused to let an abandoned lot in their neighborhood continue to be an illegal dumping ground. Lead poisoning from a massive, two-story-tall pile of rubble and trash was affecting the health of the children in the community and people had had enough. They spent three years cleaning up the three acres of abandoned land and created a nature preserve with a miniature farm, a wetland area, and even a butterfly sanctuary that has become one of the rest stops for monarchs as they migrate to Mexico each winter.
In 2010, Eden Place had over 14,000 visitors—half were school children from across the city, for whom nature is not an every day experience. It’s a phenomenal story—and one that can inspire all of us who seek to clean up “dumping grounds,” protect children and vulnerable populations from damaging environmental pollution, and ensure that clean energy becomes the norm, not the exception.
Let’s be clear, this Commission is just the first step towards addressing environmental justice concerns in Illinois—but it is an important one. This is the first piece of statewide legislation addressing EJ issues, and we hope it will not be the last. PCG, along with our faith and environmental partners, will continue to work diligently to protect our land and all those who live on it. Eden Place is a success story, but not every community may have the opportunity or resources to make that type of change. It is for that very reason that we need EJ policies at the local, state, and national level.
In the meantime, I cannot help but be hopeful. I had the opportunity to enjoy a small bit of nature, in an unexpected place, created when a community demanded justice and worked for change. Let them be an inspiration to us all.