EAST SIDE — A second federal investigation is underway into the handling of controversial plans for a Southeast Side metal scrapper, this time focusing on the state environmental officials who approved a permit for it.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency confirmed Monday it is investigating the state’s decision in June to grant a permit to Reserve Management Group, which also owns General Iron, a metal recycling facility in Lincoln Park. The decision cleared a path for RMG to open Southside Recycling at 11600 S. Burley Ave., potentially placing more heavy industry in “an area of environmental justice concern” for state regulators.
RMG still needs to secure a city permit before it can operate in East Side.
Throughout the state’s review, officials repeatedly said they could not deny Southside Recycling’s permit because of General Iron’s past violations, nor over neighbors’ pushback of the planned scrapper.
EPA officials will investigate whether the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency “discriminated against the predominantly Latino and African American community in southeast Chicago” in issuing the permit. Lilian Dorka, director of the U.S. EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office, confirmed the investigation in a letter to attorneys for two local activist groups who have been working to stop the East Side facility from opening.
The complaint aims to show the Illinois EPA’s “lack of consideration to the real environmental justice concerns” over Southside Recycling, Gina Ramirez said. She is the co-chair of the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, which filed the complaint along with the Southeast Environmental Task Force.
“No one … at the state or city level has given fair consideration to our concerns, so [the investigation] is a pretty big deal, an important step,” Ramirez said.
The feds will also look into whether the state agency’s services are accessible for people with limited English proficiency and people with disabilities, Dorka said.
Residents spoke out against a lack of notices in Spanish ahead of the state’s public hearing on RMG’s plans in May, and a lack of live translation during the hearing. The East Side neighborhood is 82 percent Hispanic or Latino.
U.S. senators, aldermen, activists and neighbors voiced concerns with RMG’s plans during the state’s public comment period, citing General Iron’s checkered past and the numerous industrial facilities already in operation on the Southeast Side.
The Environmental Protection Act “needs to be modernized” to allow for consideration of an area’s existing pollution burden, Gov. JB Pritzker’s spokeserson said at the time.
“This administration agrees with advocates that there is a broader regulatory problem that most severely impacts the health and safety of low-income communities — especially those of color,” Pritzker spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh said in June.
When asked for updates on the progress of changes to environmental law, Abudayyeh said Tuesday “the General Assembly has not been in session much over the last 10 months” due to the pandemic.
Illinois EPA spokesperson Kim Biggs said the agency will work with the U.S. EPA and other parties to review the complaint.
“Illinois EPA just yesterday received the outreach from U.S. EPA as noted in the letter; therefore, it is premature to comment further at this time,” Biggs said.
Attorneys representing three local environmental justice groups filed a complaint directly with the state EPA in August, alleging the agency’s decision to grant RMG’s permit was discriminatory. That complaint “tracks very closely” with the complaint filed with the federal government, Biggs said.
In response to the state-level complaint, Illinois EPA officials denied their permit review process “sought to disadvantage citizens of Southeast Chicago.”
The agency followed state and federal laws, and “exerted considerable effort” in evaluating the concerns of equity raised around Southside Recycling’s proposal, environmental justice officer Chris Pressnall wrote to the attorneys Dec. 18.
The Illinois EPA “regrets that the language translation issues were raised too late in the permitting process” to allow for live translation, Pressnall said. No requests for live translation were made until the hearing, according to Pressnall.
The agency believes its environmental justice policy “is generally successful in attaining its goals … however, upon further reflection, there may be room for improvements” in determining when translation should be made available, Pressnall said.
In a statement, RMG spokesperson Randall Samborn said “the bar to trigger the U.S. EPA’s civil rights investigation is low.”
Environmental activists and their attorneys are “pulling out all the stops in a desperate effort to stop a legally qualified business from operating pursuant to rigorous controls and conditions,” Samborn said.
The EPA investigation is the second federal probe regarding the planned Southside Recycling facility, in addition to a lawsuit filed by Southeast Side residents.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is investigating a complaint against the city filed by residents in August. They allege decades of local policy decisions furthered housing discrimination in Chicago by allowing polluting industry to cluster on the Southeast Side.
The investigation was triggered by General Iron’s exit from Lincoln Park.
HUD officials asked the city in November to withhold Southside Recycling’s operational permit until the complaint could be mediated. City lawyers rejected the request, calling the activists’ complaint “unfounded.”
A lawsuit seeking to block Southside Recycling’s operating permit was filed by residents in October.
The suit alleges years of campaign contributions made to aldermen from General Iron and the Labkon family — the scrapper’s former owner who retains a minority stake in Southside Recycling — have “cleared the way” for the city to approve RMG’s plans.
If the city issues an operating permit, essential equipment from the North Side site and most General Iron employees will move to Southside Recycling.
The city will not issue the operating permit before March 1, according to court documents.
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