The Legislature should help Illinois’ environment by sustaining three August vetoes by Gov. J.B. Pritzker when lawmakers return for their fall veto session.
At the same time, Pritzker — and Chicago, for that matter — should kick up their efforts to protect and improve the state’s environment.
Pritzker wisely nixed legislation that could have made it harder and more expensive to decarbonize the state’s and nation’s power grid; that would have lifted the moratorium on nuclear reactors; and that could have added managed toll lanes to a section of Interstate 55 between the Dan Ryan Expressway and I-355.
First, using an amendatory veto, Pritzker weeded out language from an energy bill that would have ceded control over who can build regional power lines across downstate territory. That language could have made it harder for other utilities to connect solar and wind power installations in places where they are most abundant to customers in population centers.
Second, Pritzker vetoed a bill to lift the moratorium on new nuclear plants that was pitched as a way to permit small nuclear reactors, touted as more affordable and safer. But Pritzker said the bill was worded in a way that would also allow construction of costly large-scale nuclear reactors. Not only would more plants of any size lead to the generation of more radioactive waste — for which there is no permanent storage facility — but the end of the moratorium also could lead to a request for more nuclear bailouts, funded by energy customers, depending on trends in energy prices. According to the Nuclear Energy Information Service, all nine existing bailouts will expire in 2026.
Third, Pritzker wisely vetoed a bill that would have permitted private funding for such projects as a proposed Stevenson Expressway expansion that could worsen air quality for adjoining communities that already suffer from pollution and health risks.
During the fall veto session, the Legislature has the power to overturn each Pritzker veto with a three-fifths vote in each chamber. But lawmakers should not do so, particularly because the measures involved some last-minute political legerdemain or confusion before they were passed.
Beyond Pritzker’s vetoes, his administration should step up its game to protect the environment. For example, it’s disappointing he did not find a way to keep the Damen Silos along the Chicago River in public hands, or in the hands of a private owner with a strong environmental background who promised an eco-friendly use for the property.
We understand Pritzker inherited a big and complicated bureaucracy that doesn’t easily turn on a dime and was hollowed out under the previous management. Many day-to-day permitting decisions and enforcement of regulations shape the direction of the state’s environmental policies, without ever landing on the governor’s desk.
Yet critics say Pritzker needs to put more emphasis on solutions to environmental challenges, such as planting more trees, acquiring land for green uses and doing more to increase the number of electric vehicles on the roadways. Insufficient action, they say, could mean available federal money for such initiatives will be left on the table. That said, Pritzker has done much more for the environment than governors in many other states.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, it would be good to see funding for a resurrected Department of the Environment show up in the city’s next budget proposal this fall.
Former Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), who opposed shutting down the department and has called ever since for it to be reinstated, told us this summer’s harsh weather in many places is a reminder that Chicago, like governments at all levels, shares the responsibility for keeping the planet livable.
“Look around the country,” Sawyer said. “Climate change is real.”
Mayor Brandon Johnson reportedly has signaled his 2024 budget will re-establish the department. If it does, the department must be fully funded and capable of hiring staff with exceptional technical expertise.
We’re hoping the coming year will be a time not just for a revived Chicago Department of the Environment but also for an increased push statewide to make Illinois a healthier and safer place to live.
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