Cities vs. Suburbs: Burdens of Pollution

In New York State, there has long been an “Upstate vs. Downstate” divide. If a real New Yorker asks you what part of the state you’re from, they’re really asking you which of three places you’re from: THE City, Long Island, or Upstate (anywhere else). I know this because when I moved to Brooklyn after college, I quickly learned that growing up 60 miles north of New York City – still some 300 miles south of the Canadian border – meant that I was from Upstate. The existence of an “us” and “the rest” mentality is not unique to New York, of course. Large cities in the U.S. often overtake the rest of their mother state – in terms of both popularity and population. In the environmental context, this makes for tough, and interesting, decision-making.

The recent closings of two Chicago power plants are a reminder that when it comes to cleaning up the environment, regulators usually can’t please everyone. While many Chicagoans applaud the decision to close the plants (in the Chicago neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village) and view it as a serious attempt to improve air quality, other suburban activists claim they’re being ignored. The closings came as part of a compromise that saw several environmental groups drop a lawsuit against the plants’ operators after the operator agreed to close these two plants.

That operator, Midwest Generator, still owns and operates other polluting facilities. Some suburban activists have noted that these Chicago closings are an example of regulators focusing too much on big cities, while ignoring suburban communities. Midwest Generator’s suburban Joliet plant, for example, was not included in the deal, but produces more “smog-forming sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide” than the two recently closed plants did combined.

The closing of coal-fired power plants within the city of Chicago was a relief to residents facing poor air quality. Chicago, like other large cities in the U.S., has lots of people and lots of pollution. But does this mean cities should be a bigger priority for regulators and elected officials? Suburban polluters should not be ignored, but it makes sense to have a deliberate focus on urban pollution.

Over 40% of New York residents live in New York City, and at least 20% of Illinois residents live in Chicago. Simply put, focusing on urban pollution means focusing on more people. Closing a plant in a big city, for example, would likely prevent more children from developing asthma than would the closing of a plant guilty of even more pollution in the suburbs. If it isn’t realistic (or even practical) to close or significantly improve every polluting facility at the same time, should we start with those within our most populated cities? Should we start with the worst polluters, regardless of geography?

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