The Chicago City Council voted Wednesday to partially ban plastic shopping bags and put in place tougher regulations for petcoke facilities. Progress Illinois takes a look at the two issues as well as other highlights from the council meeting.
The city of Chicago on Wednesday became the latest U.S. municipality to enact a plastic bag ban at the checkout counters of most retailers. By a 36-10 vote, the city council approved the partial bag ban, despite opposition from industry groups and some aldermen who believe the move will hurt consumers and businesses.
"Today we're not taking a small step, we're taking a large step," the ordinance's lead sponsor Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) said on the council floor. Moreno has been pushing for a Ban-the-Bag ordinance since November of 2011.
The measure approved today does not apply to Chicago restaurants and small, independent stores less than 10,000 square feet in size. Small retailers, however, have to comply with the plastic bag ban if they are part of a chain with at least three stores.
The ten 'no' votes came from Alds. Leslie Hairston (5th), Roderick Sawyer (6th) Anthony Beale (9th), Lona Lane (18th), Ariel Reboyras (30th), Scott Waguespack (32nd), Nicholas Sposato (36th), Emma Mitts (37th), Mary O'Connor (41st) and Brendan Reilly (42nd).
Hairston opposed the measure in part because she said it will make grocery stores even less likely to set up shop in blighted communities that lack fresh, healthy food options.
"I'm watching my community go to hell in a hand basket, while communities that are rich in resources spend time debating plastic bags," Hairston said ahead of the vote. "Most of them are already looking for reasons why they won't come to South and West Side communities, and we're going to give them more reasons by forcing them to spend money on paper bags and forcing shoppers to spend additional money by buying, carrying, shopping or using reusable bags. These are people who don't have a grocer in walking distance and have to spend bus fare to get to the nearest grocer with healthy choices."
A plastic bag costs a retailer roughly 3 cents each, while a paper bags costs about 10 cents per sack.
Moreno pushed back on claims that the move is anti-business, saying "there is no evidence ... that this hurts business."
"In fact, it's the opposite," the alderman said. "I'm tired of 3 billion bags, less than 10 percent are returned to be recycled, and less than 10 percent of those returned are recycled. Why? Because there's no market."
Other U.S. cities like Portland and Seattle have already imposed some form of a plastic bag ban at checkout counters, and Hawaii was the first U.S. state to outlaw them. Policy makers in California — where almost 100 municipalities including Los Angeles and San Francisco already ban the bags — are also trying to impose a statewide ban.
Before Wednesday's vote, Sposato said he believes the new restrictions will adversely affect manufacturing jobs.
"I have spoken with a bag manufacturer located in Chicago who has told me he expects to lose business because of this ban and [will] have to layoff employees," Sposato told the council members.
But Ald. George Cardenas (12th), chair of the council's environmental committee and one of the ordinance's co-sponsors, asserts the ordinance is pro-business, saying it will likely lead to the creation of more businesses focused on producing non-plastic bags.
On the council floor, Ald. John Arena (45th) made a point to stress that plastic bags already cost money for both retailers and customers.
"We act as if these are free. We know there is no free lunch," the alderman said, noting that grocery stores already pass their plastic bag costs onto consumers. "These bags are overused and are prolific in our waste stream and in our wards."
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who believes the legislation "is a right step forward," echoed similar sentiments about costs while speaking with reporters after the meeting, noting that "It's not like what happens today is free."
"The idea that today, the clock starts now as it relates to cost — they have costs for purchasing plastic bags," the mayor said. "You already incur a cost for the production and service of plastic bags. It already happens."
Stores larger than 10,000 square feet have until August 1, 2015 to comply, while the compliance date for smaller retailers is August 1, 2016. Under the measure, retailers mandated to adhere to the ordinance that continue to provide plastic bags to customers will be fined between $300 to $500 for each violation.
The ordinance states that "each operator shall provide reusable bags, recyclable paper bags or commercially-compostable plastic bags, or any combination thereof, to customers for the purpose of enabling the customer to carry away goods from the point of sale." Failure to provide customers with either a reusable, paper or compostable plastic bag would come with a $100 to $300 fee for each offense.
In a statement, the American Progressive Bag Alliance, an opponent of the ordinance, called the council's Ban-the-Bag vote "misguided."
"At a time when Chicago is troubled by rising crime and budget shortfalls, it is unbelievable that the city's aldermen and the mayor would choose to advance a misguided policy that will achieve no environmental benefit, and, at the same time, harm businesses and consumers," said the alliance's chairman Lee Califf. "This legislation, based on misinformation and photo-op politics, threatens a manufacturing industry that employes 30,800 Americans, including 3,000 people in Illinois."
Petcoke ordinance gets approved
Meanwhile, the city council approved another high-profile environmental measure on Wednesday — tougher regulations on petcoke stored in Chicago.
Under the ordinance, backed by Emanuel and co-sponsored by Ald. John Pope (10th), new petcoke storage facilities are prohibited from opening in the city and existing sites cannot expand. There is, however, an exception for cement manufacturing facilities that have obtained a construction permit and a “new source review” approval from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
Facility operators will have to report the amount of coke and coal material that goes in and out of their facilities. And the commissioner of the city's Department of Planning and Development is tasked with monitoring this data. Within three years, the commissioner has to provide the city council with a report recommending whether additional material-use limitations are needed to protect the public health and interest.
Petcoke, which is a thick, powdery byproduct of oil refining that can pollute the air and water, is being stored in big piles along the banks of the Calumet River on Chicago's Southeast Side. Residents who live near the three Southeast Side petcoke storage facilities say dust from the uncovered mounds is blowing into their neighborhoods and making them sick. Southeast Side residents have been calling for an outright petcoke ban in Chicago, but city officials say such a move would not withstand a legal challenge.
The council did not hold a role call vote on the petcoke ordinance, but Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) asked to be recorded as voting 'no', explaining that he also prefers to see a total ban on petcoke.
Petcoke is commonly used as a fuel source in power plants and is a component in the aluminum, steel and cement making process. It often gets shipped to markets overseas in places like China, India and Mexico. The petcoke mounds piled along the banks of the Calumet River were largely transported there from the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana.
"When BP was building this facility, the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois should have done something," Emanuel told reporters. "It was self-evident there (was) going to be petcoke as a byproduct."
When asked to respond to those who say the measure does not go far enough, Emanuel outlined the various steps the city has taken to tackle the petcoke problem, while also explaning that there is "more work to be done" when it comes to policy to protect the public health and the environment.
"One: there will be no future [petcoke] facilities," the mayor said. "Two: the facilities that exist will have a number of steps taken that will make it cost prohibitive, in my view, to operate. Three: as you know, you just can't ban it. Fourth is we've entered with the state into a series of legal actions to take on this industry ... (Petcoke regulations) should have been done before. We're doing them now."
In addition to the pending petcoke ordinance, the Chicago Department of Public Health has regulations, which were finalized last month, designed to limit emissions that come from petcoke. Petcoke operators have to fully enclose their storage piles within a two-year period and submit monthly progress reports to the city as they work to comply with the public health department’s health and safety measures.
After the vote, the Natural Resources Defense Council called the new petcoke ordinance a "step in the right direction," but added that it will "not rid Southeast Side residents of the petcoke piles that continue to place a huge burden on their community."
NRDC's Midwest Director Henry Henderson issued this statement following the council meeting:
The City is to be commended for attacking the petcoke problem, but a lot more has to be done before Chicagoans who live near sites where petroleum coke and coal have been mounded by their homes, schools and parks can feel safe.
“The Mayor has been very public in his desire to push this dirty stuff out of Chicago. Given the City’s multi-pronged approach today’s vote is a step forward, but we need ongoing, concerted effort and enforcement to achieve Emanuel’s goal.
Meanwhile, residents of the Southeast Side are grappling with the immediate impacts of these mountains of waste in their midst. They have urgently and rightly called for a ban on petcoke and coal in their neighborhoods. They want the piles out fast and we intend to help.
Ride-sharing ordinance gets delayed
The Chicago City Council agreed to postpone consideration of Emanuel's amended ordinance to place some regulations on ride-sharing companies after four aldermen pulled a procedural move to defer the vote.
Alds. Arena, Beale, Sawyer and Ricardo Munoz (22nd) used the maneuver to request that the vote be delayed until June 26.
The pending proposal looks to create a new "transportation network provider" license for ride-sharing companies such as Uber X, Lyft and SideCar, which are not currently licensed. Under the measure, the new license would come with stricter requirements for service providers that have company-wide driver averages of more than 20 hours per week. Most ride-sharing drivers work part-time, and the city estimates the count of full-time drivers at about 100 to 150.
Mara Georges of the Illinois Transportation Trade Association, a large group of medallion taxicab owners in the city of Chicago, said there are a handful of problems with the ordinance as written, including the approach to average the hours of a company's driver workforce.
That means "when you take an average over the life of a company that no driver is seen as really above the threshold, so no driver will have a law enforcement background check performed on that driver," Georges said ahead of the council meeting. "The public deserves to know who they're getting in a car with, who’s going to be transporting them for hire, and under this ordinance, the public will not have the confidence or assurance that their driver has been vetted (and) background checked."
The measure also permits the city to "place a cap on surge-pricing” during times of high demand. And ride-sharing companies would have to serve all city communities, among other requirements.
On other transportation matters, the council approved regulations on pedicabs. The new restrictions prohibit pedicabs from operating at any time on both Michigan Avenue and State Street from Congress Pkwy to Oak Street. Under the measure, pedicabs are prohibited from operating in the Loop during rush hours, among other regulations.
"Both of these cases, there is a new industry," Emanuel said of the proposed ride-sharing regulations and the new pedicab ordinance. "Therefore, we should have a set of regulatory oversight that creates a safe playing field so people who use them can use them in good conscious that there's a regulatory oversight that brings safety to them."
But Pedicab drivers are up in arms over the regulations, saying the new limitations will hurt their businesses.
When asked about the pedicab drivers' concerns, the mayor said, "If there's other things we need to do as it relates to the industry, we'll come back."
"We've taken a step here forward," he added. "It's a new industry; they just emerged. We now have a regulatory architecture that provides some safety and oversight and clear set of rules as it relates to safety so drivers have that knowledge."
In other news, the council approved a $5 million legal settlement for a 24-year-old college student who lost his leg after an automobile struck him while he was waiting at a bus stop near 95th Street and Indiana Avenue. The car that hit Edwin J. Hill on November 20, 2008 lost control after it hit an icy part of the road caused by an apparent water main break.
Also on Wednesday, the council approved new regulations for companies looking to install illuminated, digital display signs in Chicago communities. The measure sets light-emission levels that the signs can give off during the day and night. It also states that the signs cannot change their face more than once every 10 seconds.
Here are some of the other new requirements under the ordinance, according to a release from the mayor's office:
Prohibits off-premise dynamic image display signs within 125 feet of any R District
Restricts the size of dynamic image display signs in neighborhood business districts, in B1 and B2 Districts, a dynamic image display sign can be no larger than 25 percent of the face area or 32 square feet, whichever is less.
Restricts the size of dynamic image display signs in major business districts, a dynamic image display sign can be no larger than 25% of the face area or 64 square feet, whichever is less.
Prohibits video display signs in all zoning districts, except in a Planning Development in which the principal use is a sports stadium or convention center.
Meanwhile, members of the Progressive Reform Coalition introduced a resolution calling on the council's public safety committee to hold a hearing concerning Chicago Police Department (CPD) crime statistics. The resolution comes on the heels of a recent audit of CPD assault-related crime statistics conducted by the office of Inspector General Joseph Ferguson. Among other findings, which were released earlier this month, the audit showed that the department "incorrectly classified 3.1 percent of 2012 assault-related events contained in incident reports, under the 10 percent error rate that the FBI states is acceptable for agencies participating in its national reporting program." The aldermen want Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, Ferguson and the public to comment at the hearing about the CPD's "crime classification and reporting practices."