Advocates have mixed feelings on legislature’s environmental action this year
Editor’s note: This story will be updated as the measures make their way through the legislature this week.
SPRINGFIELD – Several pieces of environmental legislation are making their way through the Illinois General Assembly on what was scheduled to be the final week of the spring legislative session.
The proposals range from shifting the state’s procurement requirements to a measure aimed at improving soil health on Illinois farms.
But environmental advocates gave mixed reviews on the legislature’s environmental record so far this year.
“There was movement on a number of issues this year, but I have an overall level of disappointment,” Jen Walling, head of the Illinois Environmental Council, said on Wednesday afternoon.
Earlier this year, lawmakers considered a wide array of major environmental proposals that have, so far, not been moved forward. These include a pilot project for off-shore wind on Lake Michigan, a new regulatory framework for carbon sequestration and a measure that would provide relief to utility consumers.
Jack Darin, head of the Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter, echoed Walling’s sentiment, noting that advocates will continue to push for further environmental reforms when the General Assembly comes back in the fall or in next year’s session.
“It’s looking like we’re going to have to wait for progress on a couple important issues,” he said.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, appear poised to blow past a self-imposed deadline for the scheduled end of their spring legislative session on Friday. They can do so without much consequence, as session can be extended through May 31 without triggering the constitutional requirement that a three-fifths majority is needed to pass a bill with an immediate effective date.
Because a budget bill had not been introduced as of late Wednesday, the session was expected to continue at least until early next week.
Soil health and nutrient pollution
Senate Bill 1701 from Sen. Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago, creates a structure for the state to assess soil health through a newly created “Illinois Healthy Soils Initiative.” These assessments would happen under the purview of the state Department of Agriculture as well as local soil conservation districts with the goal of identifying “voluntary and incentive-based strategies that improve healthy soils” as well as improving coordination on soil health strategies.
“This initiative focuses on enhancing soil health to improve water quality, maintain our ecosystems, protect our agricultural production and support wildlife habitats surrounding Illinois farmers,” Villivalam said in a Thursday statement.
The measure passed the House 109-6 Tuesday and cleared the Senate unanimously Friday.
The bill, initially opposed by some farm groups, gained support from the powerful Illinois Farm Bureau as it was amended in the past few weeks. Emily Perone Hall, who works in legislative affairs for the organization, said the bill “strikes a balanced approach.”
“This provides an incentive for farmers to voluntarily invest in on-farm conservation,” Hall said in a Wednesday statement.
Advocates from the agricultural industry said the bill will help soil and water conservation districts better utilize federal funds. Others focused on the environmental impact of soil health.
Eliot Clay, who works on state programs for the IEC, hopes that Illinois will go further to incentivize farmers to voluntarily use more sustainable practices like planting cover crops or no-till farming methods.
“There’s a cost benefit to farmers who go through with these practices,” Clay said.
State police pointed to blowing dust from nearby farms as the cause of a major crash on Interstate 55 earlier this month that killed eight people. Other proponents of the bill have pointed to unsustainable farming practices as a cause of the dusty conditions that made the crash possible.
Poor soil health and the reliance on fertilizers can also lead to detrimental effects on the environment through nutrient pollution. This is a kind of pollution that occurs when phosphates and nitrates in agricultural runoff make their way into downstream ecosystems like the Gulf of Mexico. Nutrient pollution can wreak havoc to sensitive marine life.
Reporting from Capitol News Illinois last year revealed the extent to which the state has so far failed to live up to its goals on nutrient pollution.
Environmental justice proposal rejected
In a rare occurrence at the Illinois Capitol, House Bill 2520 failed on the floor on a 57-48 vote Wednesday. It needed 60 votes to pass.
The bill would have reformed the process for permitting construction of new sources of air pollution, including adding a new fee structure. As part of that new process, developers would have been required to potentially pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees, although a final figure was never reached.
Environmental justice communities are defined in other state laws and based on socioeconomic status, pollution levels and a community population’s sensitivity to pollution among other factors.
Air pollution disproportionately impacts Black communities, according to research from Harvard University and the California-based Environmental Systems Research Institute.
Rep. Sonya Harper, D-Chicago, said legislation addressing those disparities is crucial to environmental justice.
“Everyone has a right to breathe, no matter their zip code,” Harper said during debate on her bill.
Debate on the floor focused mostly on the fact that the bill was expected to be amended in the Senate to change key provisions, including the amount of any potential fees.
“We need to make sure we have the bill in its final form before we vote on it,” said Rep. Patrick Windhorst, R-Metropolis.
Advocates were disappointed in the bill’s failure.
“These are communities that are not only overburdened but underpowered in a lot of ways,” Walling said.
Gina Ramirez, a senior advisor with the Southeast Environmental Task Force, also said the bill’s failure is disappointing.
“We’ve been trying to pass this bill for two years,” Ramirez said. “I feel like environmental justice should be a priority for the state.”
Ramirez also noted that there were procedural issues with passing the bill that led to several lawmakers not being in the House chamber for the vote.
“Literally and figuratively, folks didn’t show up,” Ramirez said.
Ban on plastic foam food containers
The House passed a bill this week that would prohibit state agencies from using disposable food containers made at least partly with polystyrene foam, often referred to by the brand name Styrofoam.
Senate Bill 58 cleared the House after a nearly unanimous Senate vote in March. It then passed the Senate 36-20 Friday, clearing the way for it to head to the governor.
Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, a Democrat from Glenview and sponsor on the bill, said it’s a first step to reducing waste in Illinois.
“I believe this is an important step forward, and to do so at least with our state agencies who can take a leadership role in reducing the impact of the environmental impact of polystyrene foam,” Gong-Gershowitz said.
She also sponsored a similar measure, House Bill 2376, which would have prohibited restaurants from distributing plastic foam containers. That measure has stalled, and SB 58 applies only to state agencies and vendors that contract with the state.
The bill would prevent state agencies and departments from purchasing disposable food service containers that contain polystyrene beginning in 2025. Instead, they’ll have to find compostable or recyclable containers.
After Jan. 1, 2026, vendors contracted through a state agency or department wouldn’t be able to use containers made with polystyrene at any site owned or leased by the state.
This drew concern from Republicans who worried about the impact on businesses contracting with the state. The Illinois State Fair, held in Springfield, contracts a large number of vendors that would be subject to this law if passed.
Rep. Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville, said he’s concerned about the costs private companies might incur as a result.
“[Polystyrene containers] are very reasonable to buy. That’s why they’re used. You’re raising the cost of it,” Halbrook said.
Government vehicles go electric
Senate Bill 1769 would require all passenger vehicles purchased by the state to be “zero-emission” by 2030, meaning they produce no greenhouse gases. This is intended to prompt the state to buy electric vehicles, although other technologies may fit the bill’s definition of zero-emission.
After being amended in the House, the bill awaits action in both chambers before it can be sent to the governor.
“One of the biggest contributors to emissions and global warming is the transportation industry,” bill sponsor Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, said on Thursday. “So the state leading on electric vehicles is important.”
The bill initially would have required all governments, including local governments, to move to electric vehicles, but a recent amendment restricted its effects to state vehicles. The bill also exempts law enforcement vehicles and vehicles bought by the Department of Transportation as part of a consolidated procurement from the requirement.
‘Forever chemicals’ in firefighting foam
House Bill 3508 would require the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and state fire marshal to create a “take-back program” for firefighting foam that contains perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, more commonly known as PFAS or “forever chemicals.”
The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and House and will head to the governor.
“Research has shown that the PFAS in firefighting foam can seep into our water supply and cannot be removed in the water treatment process,” bill sponsor Sen. Laura Fine, D-Glenview, said. “It is vital to stop the ongoing use of products with PFAS to preserve our environment and prevent adverse health effects.”
The bill was significantly altered as it went through the General Assembly. When introduced, it would have required the IEPA to investigate the presence of PFAS in state waterways and wastewater treatment plants as well as allowing the agency to create maximum concentrations of the chemicals in wastewater sludge.
This proposal was one of more than a half dozen introduced this year concerning PFAS, although most did not make it far in the legislative process.
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