The proposed Stevenson Expressway expansion brings activists and neighbors together with airline concerns about increased pollution

MCKINLEY PARK As Chicagoans experienced some of the worst air quality in the world due to smoke from Canadian wildfires, environmental activists encouraged Southwest Side neighbors during a meeting Tuesday to work with them to address concerns raised by another concern: the proposed expansion of the Stevenson Expressway.

Representative Theresa Mah held the meeting Tuesday night at McKinley Park Fieldhouse, 2210 W. Pershing Road, to update neighbors on a bill that would add more lanes to the I-55 freeway.

The bill was cleared by state lawmakers at the end of their May session, allowing the Illinois Department of Transportation to pursue a public-private partnership to complete I-55 expansion, according to the Tribune. The expressway crosses part of the Southwest Side of the city and continues into Joliet.

Adolfo Catrejon, 27, who lives in West Lawn, said his biggest concern about adding extra lanes would be the pollution brought on by more cars driving on the freeway.

The fact that we’re holding a town hall meeting on the most polluted day we’ve had so far is kind of a joke, Catrejon said. We can’t look each other in the eye right now and be serious that it would add more pollution.

As the meeting progressed, some attendees highlighted other ongoing environmental injustices that neighbors face.

Alfredo Romo, a member of the Neighbors for Environmental Justice organization, said he encountered environmental racism firsthand in Little Village when he worked for a chemical company and developed cancer.

Romo reminded neighbors of two other environmental issues impacting community health: the cloud of dust that enveloped Little Village after the failed demolition of a coal stack and emissions from the controversial MAT Asphalt plant in McKinley Park.

This is why it is important for us to have an environmental presence. They were the ones who paid the price, Romo said.

Neighbors for Environmental Justice was one of several local community and environmental groups that attended the meeting. Others included the Southwest Environmental Alliance, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, the Sierra Club and the McKinley Park Developmental Council.

Bringing these organizations into a room is one way to facilitate communication between people who care about related issues, Mah said.

I see their power and I want to increase their power, Mah said.

Credit: Jacqueline Cardenas/Block Club Chicago
Rep. Theresa Mah speaks to neighbors at McKinley Park Fieldhouse, 2210 W. Pershing Road Tuesday evening.

As the neighbors began to organize, Ald. Julia Ramirez (12th) said in a statement that the environmental justice agenda is growing.

A neighbor suggested that environmental activists and neighbors come together to form a committee to prevent the I-55 expansion bill from moving forward, which drew some applause.

Credit: Jacqueline Cardenas/Block Club Chicago
Southwest Side neighbors gather for a town hall meeting hosted by Rep. Theresa Mah at McKinley Park Fieldhouse, 2210 W. Pershing Road.

Theresa McNamara, president of the Southwest Environmental Alliance, told neighbors to run to some of the people here who work in the community to make it a better place for all of us.

We need all of you because that’s the only way things are going to stop, she said.

A handful of the 45 or so neighbors who attended the meeting stayed behind after it concluded to speak with representatives of environmental groups.

Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, which seeks to advance state environmental policies, said she will support a field committee of neighbors and activists to keep a close eye on the I-55 expansion bill.

We should keep people alert and active, Walling said.

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