Big Fight for Clean Water in Chicago’s Little Village

A Nextgen Blog by June Noyes, DePaul University.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts only student essays; sponsors a forum for its student contributors; and invites student proposals to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

June Noyes is an undergraduate student at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. She is majoring in Journalism with minors in Anthropology and Public Affair Communication. June’s writing focus is on environmental justice and global affairs. She has contributed to her university’s online magazine and learned about environmental concerns in the Chicago area from its feature pieces. After reading into the city’s long history of environmental racism, she wanted to focus on local, historical neighborhoods that have faced discrimination throughout the past century.


The United States is on the brink of a water crisis, as an alarming number of US communities currently lack access to clean water. A widespread water crisis would negatively affect all of the country’s population. Furthermore, environmental racism continues to put communities of color at a greater disadvantage. City officials refusing to aid communities with pre-existing water quality issues creates a dangerous precedent for overlooking water needs. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing racial injustice, one of Chicago’s historical communities of color is fighting back.

Environmental racism in Chicago is a historically documented issue. Pollution of the Chicago River has disproportionately affected its communities of color for over 120 years. Shipping and transportation usage has resulted in over-contaminated waterways in underserved neighborhoods.1Charles Isaacs Today, the vast majority of Chicago’s water and pollution problems continue to predominately impact the south and west sides of the city, which are Black and Latinx communities. 

The south branch of the Chicago River © yuan2003

A City Unheard

Little Village is located near the Chicago Sanitation and Ship Canal on the south branch of the Chicago River. The Chicago Sanitation District created the river’s south branch to manage sewage from the Chicago River and prevent further pollution of Lake Michigan, the city’s main source of clean water. For years, this area has faced neglect from government officials, despite resident’s concerns over the water quality and cleanliness.

Many Little Village residents have had to deal with mismanagement of the sewage system, which caused offensive smells in numerous houses. Mauricio Vazquez, a Chicago Housing Authority resident, has been requesting that the city fix the sewage system flooding his house for over five years.2Malagón, Elvia The sewer water flooding into Vazquez’s basement has been plagued with feces and other toxic waste. Many of his neighbors have also reported the problem to the city authorities. The flooding issue has yet to be resolved.  

Little Village has more recently been facing environmental degradation due to a new business development project by Hilco, one of the largest investment companies in the world. Hilco is currently demolishing a nearby former coal plant for its new distribution and logistics facility. This demolition has polluted the river with deposits of silty water from the Ship Canal, thus disrupting the natural food chain and destroying the habitat. As a result, Hilco received a $2,500 fine from the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Silt pollution flow © Dawn Endico

This fine followed an earlier $68,000 fine and a 6-month ban against Hilco’s implosions that produce toxic clouds of dust and debris. After one smokestack implosion had covered Little Village, the city swiftly released a statement demanding Hilco pay the reparations for the damage caused.

Although, the City of Chicago remains active in monitoring and fixing dangerous development infractions, it continues to disregard troubled residents, including Vazquez. While the heavy fines and building delay imposed against Hilco is a positive change for the neighborhood, the residents’ call for improvements has remained largely unheard.

Like countless US communities, Little Village has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. In a study by the City University of New York, Chicago’s virus hotspots were found in predominately Black and Brown neighborhoods.3Maroko, Andrew Nearly 94% of COVID-19 cases have been affected Blacks or Latinx, despite POC [Persons of Color] only making up about 60% of Chicago’s overall population.4U.S. Census Bureau

Lack of clean water access prevents residents from being able to safely wash their hands and stay hydrated – both critical during this time. Over the past year, residents of Little Village faced mass water cutoffs due to unpaid water bills – due to rising costs. Juliana Pino, Policy Director within the Little Village Environmental Justice League, pointed out that Chicago still has not restored water for all Chicagoans, especially in Little Village – despite efforts to halt new water shutoffs. “There’s still folks on the water system that were never turned back on.” said Pino during an interview with WBEZ.

It Takes A Village

The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) is the local leading advocate for the community and environmental justice. Since its founding 26 years ago, LVEJO has fought for safe land, safe water, safe school renovations, community green spaces and park development.  

Collins Garden Community Garden being complete © jennherrera

In 2014, they launched the River Corridor Project, which outlined an entire renewal project for their riverfront in effort to create a safer water environment and green space for Little Village residents. The project connected the root of many issues to the Chicago Sanitation and Ship Canals south branch of the river. In addition, LVEJO has also accomplished shutting down a coal-fired power plant; developed a community garden; and transformed a former development site (that produced toxic rain runoff) into a sustainable greenspace.

Last month (July 2020), LVEJO held a water-bottle drive for Little Village families facing water shortages due to massive water service cutoffs dating back to April. These water cutoffs were reported as citywide COVID-19 shutdowns began. The many accomplishments of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization serve as an excellent example of community action and self-advocacy.

Single-use water bottles © Duncan_drennan

Threatened access to clean water for communities of color having access to clean water will be exacerbated in more widely spread water crises brought on by climate change and increasing populations. Little Village is far from the only community facing environmental racism in the United States, let alone across the globe. It is imperative to support those fighting against it now, rather than waiting for greater threats in the future.

A collective amount of voices speaking against injustice is more powerful than an adversary, especially when it is from the actual communities affected. The more attention and awareness brought to this issue, the more likely these communities will receive justice. We can all contribute to this effort by listening to today’s advocates for positive change.


Sources:

Charles, Isaacs. Environmental Justice in Little Village: A Case for Reforming Chicago’s Zoning Law, 15 NW. J. L. & SOC. POL’Y. 357, p. 362 (2020). https://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/njlsp/vol15/iss3/4  

Malagón, Elvia. “For residents of CHA building in Heart of Chicago, persistent sewage, flooding problems stink.” Chicago Sun-Times. Jun 17, 2020 https://chicago.suntimes.com/2020/6/17/21294205/heart-of-chicago-cha-property-flooding-sewage-neighbors-pilsen-area#:~:text=Metro%2FState-,For%20residents%20of%20CHA%20building%20in%20Heart%20of%20Chicago%2C%20persistent,waste%20and%20an%20unbearable%20smell.

Maroko, Andrew; Nash, Denis; and Pavilonis, Brian, “Covid-19 and Inequity: A comparative spatial analysis of New York City and Chicago hot spots” (2020). CUNY Academic Works. https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.04.21.20074468v1

U.S. Census Bureau. Race and Hispanic Origin, 2010. Prepared by QuickFacts. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/chicagocityillinois/RHI525219#RHI525219

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