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South Chicago, East Side

SE Side Is ‘Overburdened’ With Pollution Amid Metal Scrapper Fight, Air Quality Report Says — But It’s Below EPA Benchmark For Concern

The findings come as activists continue to pressure the Chicago Department of Public Health to reject plans for Southside Recycling, a controversial metal scrapper planned for East Side.

Community members, leaders and activists take to the streets and carry a fake coffin through Logan Square to call on Mayor Lightfoot to deny the permit to move General Iron's assets to the Southeast Side on the 30th day of the hunger strike on March 4, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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EAST SIDE — A new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air quality report confirms the East Side is overburdened with air pollution — but it’s still below the EPA’s benchmark for concerning levels.

The findings come as Southeast Side activists and neighbors continue to pressure the Chicago Department of Public Health to reject plans for a controversial metal scrapper at at 11600 S. Burley Ave. It follows the city’s own Air Quality and Health Report, released in 2020, that found South and West Side communities “bisected by major highways with high concentrations of industry” — communities like the Southeast Side — are disproportionately affected by pollution.

CDPH and EPA leaders hosted a meeting Thursday night on the health impact assessment that will inform whether the city grants an operating permit for Reserve Management Group to open Southside Recycling in East Side. RMG owns the defunct North Side scrapper General Iron’s assets.

This week’s meeting was the first of three planned sessions to share the findings of the EPA’s Oct. 21 air quality analysis of Southeast Chicago.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The planned location for Southside Recycling, 11600 S. Burley Ave.

The air quality study started in April 2021, in response to arguments long made by Southeast Side neighbors and activists concerned about their air quality and how it would be affected if Reserve Management Group opens another metal scrapper in the area.

Air quality samples were taken at two monitoring sites: George Washington High School, at 3535 E. 114th St., and South Water Filtration Plant, 3300 E. Cheltenham Place. The samples were then compared with data from other sites in and around Chicago.

The report shows the Southeast Side is overburdened with air pollution when compared with other parts of city — but it’s below the EPA’s longterm health benchmark for concern.

The Southeast Side, when compared to Lincoln Park where General Iron did operate, has more industry, more cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, lower cancer rates — but higher cancer mortality — and a shorter life expectancy.

But Kate Siegel of the U.S. EPA said “pollutants measured at George Washington High School have either decreased or remained the same” over the last 10 years.

Level of metals in the air were below the EPA’s benchmark, but in the last three years, an uptick in the level of particulate matter was registered, Siegel said.

“I want to assure you that our agency is partnering with other agencies to investigate this and find out why that is happening,” she said.

Residents complained about the methods and the findings shared in the report.  

Meleah Geertsma, member of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that she was disappointed by the lack of contextualization of the report. The monitors used for the report are “extremely limited,” she said, as they only measure the air quality of certain communities, and it didn’t examine health impacts of the air quality.

The report only considered a limited number of pollutants and it didn’t gauge the combined impact of being exposed to all the pollutants at once, Geertsma said. 

“We need to acknowledge that the pollution levels in this community are some of the highest in Chicago,” Geertsma said. “And if the CDPH is going to comply with its civil rights obligations to address pollution disparities, we have to be honest about that.”

Several other participants shared their concerns for the lack of consideration to the “combined cumulative impact” adding another metal shredder would cause.

Rev. Matthew Zemanick, community chaplain of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, said experts they work with disagree with the report’s findings.

“We have scholars that work with us with different studies and that have disagreed with the analysis presented here,” Zemanick said.

The panelists said that they’ll consider a different format for the next meetings, in accordance with the feedback and the complaints of some of the participants that said that the webinar didn’t leave enough space for residents’ voices. 

The next meeting on the findings will be held 5-7 p.m. Dec. 2. Updates will be posted here. The third session is expected to be scheduled in January 2022, and the final health input assessment is expected to be released later that month.

Read more of Block Club’s Southside Recycling coverage here.

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