EAST SIDE — Federal regulators suspended their investigation into the state’s decision to approve a permit for planned metal scrapper Southside Recycling after the agencies agreed to try to “informally” resolve a civil rights complaint filed by Southeast Siders.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigation was tabled after federal and Illinois EPA leaders began “informal resolution agreement discussions” on Feb. 11, External Civil Rights Compliance Office director Lilian Dorka said in a letter to the city’s Law Department last week.
The federal government has been investigating whether the state “discriminated against the predominantly Latino and African American community in southeast Chicago” by issuing Southside Recycling a permit.
The facility is owned by Reserve Management Group, which would shift the majority of employees and essential equipment from General Iron’s defunct site in Lincoln Park to 11600 S. Burley Ave. in East Side, where three existing RMG facilities already operate.
The U.S. EPA confirmed Monday evening the investigation was paused. Federal regulations say the agency “shall attempt to resolve [discrimination] complaints informally whenever possible.”
The U.S. EPA will prepare a draft agreement and provide it to the state for review, which may lead to further negotiations toward a final agreement, spokesperson Joshua Singer said.
The feds “will generally seek input” from complainants — in this case, Southeast Side residents — during the resolution process, Singer said. Once an agreement is finalized, federal regulators will continue to monitor the situation until the state has fulfilled the terms of the agreement.
The federal agency will ensure that the resolution process “occurs without undue delay,” Dorka wrote.
If the feds and the state cannot resolve the complaint informally, the U.S. EPA will resume its investigation and issue findings within 180 calendar days of the start of the investigation, not counting the days spent in informal resolution.
Olga Bautista of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, which filed the civil rights complaint along with the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, said in a statement she welcomes the agencies’ willingness to work toward a resolution.
“I’m glad IEPA isn’t pushing back,” Bautista said. “We hope that this negotiation process will be the catalyst for the U.S. EPA to bring relief in the form of real reforms for this environmental justice community and the whole state of Illinois.
Although the complaint filed with the U.S. EPA solely focuses on the state’s permit, the EPA recognizes the connection between “the City’s permitting process and the longstanding environmental justice issues” faced by the surrounding community in which Southside Recycling seeks to open, Dorka wrote.
U.S. EPA officials “have been in close contact with our colleagues at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development” regarding a separate fair housing investigation into city policies that allowed heavy industry to cluster on the Southeast Side, Dorka said.
Dorka’s letter was written in response to a Feb. 17 letter from Chicago Deputy Corporation Counsel John Hendricks, who offered the Law Department’s “full support and cooperation” for the EPA investigation.
In his letter, Hendricks did not address the fair housing probe, sparked by a separate complaint filed by Southeast Siders. He called the complaint “unfounded” in November, after HUD requested the city withhold Southside Recycling’s operating permit until the complaint could be mediated.
Southside Recycling attorney David Chizewer wrote the U.S. EPA last week, saying regulators have no recourse to revoke the company’s state permit.
Federal guidelines and regulations say issued permits are not suspended or revoked once a civil rights investigation begins, and only speak to the U.S. EPA’s power to end its assistance to state programs, not rescind permits.
Southeast Side residents have fiercely opposed RMG’s plans, citing General Iron’s history of violations on the North Side and the neighborhood’s designation as “an area of environmental justice concern.”
Pushback has intensified in recent weeks with a hunger strike demanding the city refuse to issue RMG an operating permit.
The initial three hunger strikers — Oscar Sanchez, Breanna Bertacchi and Chuck Stark — will complete their fourth week without food Thursday and have welcomed eight new strikers into the fold since starting their fast.
A resolution requesting the city deny Southside Recycling’s permit was not considered at Friday’s City Council meeting, after aldermen — including East Side Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) — struck down a motion to do so.
In addition to the two civil rights complaints, the effort to block Southside Recycling from opening has spurred a federal lawsuit accusing the city of environmental racism.
City officials said in court proceedings related to the that lawsuit it will not issue Southside Recycling’s operating permit before March 22, according to Dorka.
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