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Proposed Air Pollution Ordinance Has Opposing Environmental Groups Fired Up

A proposed ordinance that would restrict open burns in forest preserves and city parks was shelved before an expected vote at last week’s Chicago City Council meeting, sent back to a committee for more scrutiny after an environmental group raised concerns.

The amendment to the city’s Air Pollution Control Ordinance calls for—among other things— a 200-yard buffer zone between burns and residences and also prohibits all brush-pile fires.

The ordinance, which was already deferred once by the council on July 29, will go back to the city’s Committee on Energy, Environmental Protection and Public Utilities, where any issues will be hashed out, said Norine Hughes, coordinator for the committee’s chairman, Ald. Virginia Rugai (19th). Hughes said there will be a committee hearing before the Oct. 7 City Council meeting solely to discuss the burning issue, while the rest of this ordinance should pass at the October council meeting.

Although some aldermen gave the thumbs-up to ordinance as it was written, three others—Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), Ald. Helen Shiller (46th) and Ald. Eugene Schulter (47th) — “didn’t like one part of it,” Hughes said. The trio disagreed with the provisions of the ordinance regarding open burns in forest preserves, she said.

“Why they zoomed in on four paragraphs is beyond me,” said Hughes. “It’s a good ordinance.”

The burn legislation, proposed by Northwest Side Ald. Brian Doherty (41st), is part of a 32-page amendment updating the city’s Air Pollution Control Ordinance, which covers pollution issues from demolition to motor vehicle exhaust. The provisions of the ordinance in question would limit ecological burning in the city’s natural areas.

Bennett Lawson, deputy alderman of the 44th ward, said Tunney was contacted by a number of advocates concerned that the 200-yard restriction would be damaging to natural areas that benefit from these controlled, permitted burns in the city. The alderman, Lawson said, was concerned the ordinance might cause burns to end in some areas.

“The burns are a good thing,” said Lawson. “They keep natural areas healthy.”

Lawson said the full City Council was expected to consider the ordinance on Sept. 9, “but there are still issues with burn provisions.”

One group contacting Tunney was Friends of the Parks, which supports, “controlled, carefully planned, permitted burns done respectfully and with good communication with the neighborhood,” said Rebecca Blazer, director of the organization’s forest preserve initiatives.

Yet Blazer said the updated code severely limits controlled burns within the city limits and in parks and forest preserves.

“It’s unacceptable to a whole lot of conservation folks,” she said. “Ecological burns are incredibly important to our natural areas, not just for cute, fuzzy critters, but so that we can have healthy, functioning ecosystems.”

Not all environmental groups, however, support ecological burns. Bathsheba Birman, director of the Urban Wildlife Coalition, said a burn gone awry March 17 took out 320 acres of land in Orland Park. She said burns not only remove the last urban forests but also pose serious health risks. Community groups on the Northwest Side concluded there is no ecological or historical basis for burns, Birman said.

“We’d like to see a full ban,” said Birman.

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