EAST SIDE — Mayor Lori Lightfoot postponed a decision on whether to issue a permit to a controversial metal scrapper Friday after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency urged city officials to more carefully scrutinize the impact of another polluter opening on the Southeast Side.
EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan told Lightfoot in a letter Friday the ongoing plans for Reserve Management Group to open Southside Recycling in the East Side neighborhood “raised significant civil rights concerns” for residents of the area.
RMG, which also owns the defunct General Iron in Lincoln Park, wants to open at 11600 S. Burley Avenue, where the company already operates four other facilities.
Echoing arguments long made by neighbors and activists, Regan said the glut of heavy polluting industry on the Southeast Side, the poor environmental conditions resulting from it and decades of lax oversight “epitomize the problem of environmental injustice, resulting from more than a half century of prior actions.”
Regan called on Lightfoot to pause any permitting review for RMG and instead do an environmental justice analysis of the area “to meaningfully consider the aggregate potential health effects” of the new facility for Southeast Siders. Shortly after Regan’s letter was made public, Lightfoot announced the city indeed would delay its decision on the permit.
“As a direct result of this request, today, I directed the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) to initiate an environmental study recommended by the U.S. EPA and to delay a final decision on RMG’s permit application seeking to expand its metal recycling facility operated on the Southeast Side, pending completion of this further analysis,” Lightfoot said in a statement.
Lightfoot said her office was directing the city’s Chief Sustainability Officer and CDPH to propose a new cumulative impact ordinance to be considered by the City Council before the end of the year.
As part of the ordinance, industrial businesses would require an assessment of how operations would impact the environment of the surrounding community.
Regan, who spoke with Lightfoot earlier this week, called on the city to do a “robust analysis of ambient air quality data from Chicago’s Southeast Side, compared with other parts of the city, but also potential impacts from other pathways of exposure.” Such an investigation would “illustrate the direct link between the environmental burdens in this community and the health of the residents,” Regan wrote.
“We believe it is prudent for the City to delay a decision on the pending permit until such an analysis can be conducted,” Regan wrote. “A thorough, transparent, and properly scoped assessment would provide the public and all parties with assurance that the City is taking serious account of environmental justice concerns in its deliberations.”
Randall Samborn, a spokesman for RMG, rejected the contention the new facility would exacerbate air conditions in the overburdened area.
“The Illinois EPA and the City of Chicago have independently reviewed the cumulative air quality modeling that has already been performed, validated the findings, and concluded that even when the existing air quality was considered, the new Southside Recycling facility will meet or exceed all applicable environmental and health standards,” Samborn said in a statement. “Southside Recycling is subject to likely the most stringent set of federal, state, and local regulations of any metal recycling operation in the country.”
Company leaders repeatedly have said blocking RMG from opening the new East Side facility inevitably will mean diverting more scrap metal to Sims Metal Management in Pilsen, which is not required to follow the city’s rules for large recycling facilities unveiled last year.
“The advanced pollution control system at Southside Recycling is creating a new industry standard that will serve as a national model for capturing and controlling emissions from large recycling facilities. The U.S. EPA knows this is in stark contrast to other metal shredders, including the only other one in Chicago that continues to operate in Pilsen but has none of the air pollution controls and enclosures that Southside Recycling has. Delaying Southside Recycling’s permit will only exacerbate the environmental justice burden in Pilsen.
“And, after carefully reviewing the charges of environmental racism, a federal judge concluded there was no evidence to support the baseless allegations,” the statement read.
In the letter, Regan said the Southeast Side community “ranks at the highest levels for many pollution indicators.”
EPA screening tools show numerous environmental hazards, including “fine particulate matter, air toxics cancer risk, respiratory hazard, traffic proximity, lead paint, Superfund site proximity, hazardous waste proximity and wastewater discharges,” Regan wrote.
Since 2014, more than 75 facilities in the area have been investigated for noncompliance with the Clean Air Act. There are almost 250 facilities on the Southeast Side actively being monitored for pollution by the U.S. EPA, Regan said.
“Because of these well-known degraded environmental conditions, the siting of this facility in Chicago’s Southeast Side has raised significant civil rights concerns,” Regan said.
The scrapper’s plans are also subject to an ongoing federal housing investigation and a separate federal environmental investigation that currently is suspended pending mediation. Last month, a federal judge refused to force the city to deny RMG the permit, essentially ending that legal battle around the issue.
Given the federal housing investigation, Regan said “the issues raised by the HUD complaint deserve your careful consideration as the City weighs its environmental permitting decisions on the RMG facility.”
Regan invited further dialogue with the mayor as it moved forward.
Lightfoot said the city would conduct a “fair, thorough and timely health impact analysis to inform our future decision-making on the RMG permit application.”
‘Just for this moment, we get to enjoy the fruit of our labor’
South Siders have fiercely fought to block Southside Recycling from opening at Burley Avenue for more than a year. In 2019, the city facilitated the company’s move out of Lincoln Park, shifting essential equipment and employees from General Iron to Southside Recycling.
Even as neighbors, community leaders and activists mobilized, city and state officials continued to approve Reserve Management Group’s various applications to open for business.
The Illinois EPA approved critical permits last June, outraging senators, activists, aldermen and neighbors who noted General Iron’s history of environmental violations on the North Side. State environmental officials said at the time they could not consider those past infractions when reviewing a new permit, but activists said state law indeed allowed the EPA to review an “applicant’s past compliance history.”
Regan took aim at that decision in his letter to Lightfoot, saying the comments from the EPA under the Trump administration last summer “do not reflect the current priorities and policies” under President Joe Biden.
“If the construction permit were before Illinois EPA today, U.S. EPA would strongly recommend the state conduct a robust analysis to assess the full environmental justice implications of siting this facility in a community already overburdened by pollution, and then use that analysis to inform any permitting decision,” Regan wrote.
In October, the city quietly issued Southside Recycling the first of two needed permits, breaking public pledges to alert the public.
RMG applied for the second necessary permit, an operating permit, in November. But city officials made the company re-apply after finding three dozen deficiencies in the “incomplete” application. The company re-submitted its request, which was awaiting a final decision by the city.
Bolstering their efforts to block the permit, 11 people participated in a one-month hunger strike that ended March 4 with a rally near Lightfoot’s home. Three strikers — Breanna Bertacchi, Chuck Stark and Óscar Sánchez — began their fast Feb. 4 and gradually were joined by eight others, including Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th).
In response to Lightfoot’s statement, members of the #StopGeneralIron group urged city leaders to go further and reject the permit altogether.
After decades of fighting for more accountability for environmental issues, Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, said the news of the feds pushing for a delay and a thorough investigation was promising.
“We are finally able to see coordination from the federal authority to the local,” Wasserman said. “Our neighborhoods have had to go through hell and back, crying out for help…We know the problem and we’ve been trying to fix it.”
Over the last year, groups have been coming together to fight for environmental justice and more accountability across the South and West sides.
“People are now more aligned than ever. To have this breakthrough and see this happen is exciting. We know the challenges up ahead, but just for this moment we get to enjoy the fruit of our labor,” Wasserman said.
In response to the EPA’s letter, Gina Ramirez, Midwest outreach manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said “the calls for accountability on General Iron are coming from Southeast Side residents all the way to the Biden Administration.
“I hope Mayor Lightfoot listens and denies the permit,” Ramirez said.
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