EAST SIDE — An East Side alderman is calling on the state to suspend its permit reviews for General Iron and other applicants during the coronavirus pandemic, saying residents have not had enough opportunity to share feedback.
The pandemic has created an “inability to provide real community input” on permit applications like General Iron’s, Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) wrote in a letter. She wants to pause all environmental permits and licenses until “meaningful public engagement on these facilities can take place.”
Before the move, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency must grant an air pollution control construction permit.
The alderman made similar requests to delay General Iron’s move in a letter to Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Director John Kim late last week. She said she opposes “any air permits that require public comment,” as it’s unreasonable to expect residents of a “low-income community where many lack high speed internet connections” to turn out for virtual hearings.
An 11-week public comment period on General Iron’s permit application ended Monday, and two virtual hearings were held May 14.
Neighbors at the May hearings criticized the online format and the lack of Spanish-language notices or simulcast options for a neighborhood that’s 80 percent Hispanic.
Even as Sadlowski Garza complained residents had little opportunity to participate, timely information about the meetings was lacking from her office. Her first notice about the May hearings was posted to social media shortly after the first ended and a few hours before the second began.
Four days after the hearings, explosions rocked a $2 million piece of pollution-limiting equipment — installed after a 2018 citation for excessive emissions — at General Iron’s Lincoln Park facility. The incident led to the scrapper’s indefinite closure and a $6,000 fine.
Illinois EPA officials have said neither General Iron’s history of violations, the explosions and city shutdown nor public pushback to the planned move are cause for denying the company a permit.
Sadlowski Garza and local environmental groups rejected this claim, citing state law that says the conditions of an Illinois EPA permit may be “specifically related to the applicant’s past compliance history.”
In an 80-page letter submitted as public comment Monday, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Southeast Environmental Task Force and Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke said the “IEPA has ample authority to proactively protect the Southeast Side and must do so in this case.”
The letter also criticizes portions of the draft permit as being unenforceable and calls for more restrictions, like requiring General Iron to prevent “fluff” from escaping its facility.
Sadlowski Garza has not explicitly spoken against General Iron’s plans, though she said she is “not so sure” the scrapper can operate cleanly and safely in her ward in a May 21 interview with Block Club.
The alderman praised Reserve Management Group, which owns General Iron and operates an existing recycling facility at the proposed relocation site, for operating “in my ward 28 years without incident.”
In her letter to the IEPA, Sadlowski Garza said General Iron’s move would “further the environmental injustice” committed upon the East Side if the company added to the “air pollution burden on the community.”
General Iron has touted its $2 million regenerative thermal oxidizer and its plans to move the pollution-limiting equipment to the East Side. But after the equipment failed and led to last month’s explosions, it’s hard to trust that the oxidizer’s effectiveness, Sadlowski Garza said.
The alderman requested that General Iron and any other facility seeking to open in her ward be evaluated for its ability to reduce air pollution in the neighborhood.
The Illinois EPA’s final decision on the General Iron permits is expected by June 25.
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