EAST SIDE — The city’s health department will decide by the end of the week whether to allow a controversial metal scrapper to open on the Southeast Side, completing a permit review process that’s drawn severe criticism from neighborhood residents and environmental activists.
Reserve Management Group first applied in November 2020 to open Southside Recycling at 11600 S. Burley Ave. in East Side. If approved, essential equipment and most employees from its General Iron operation in Lincoln Park would move to the company’s Burley Avenue campus, where it already operates four recycling facilities.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot paused Southside Recycling’s permit review in May, after U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan said the Southside Recycling proposal “raised significant civil rights concerns.” At Regan’s request, the city analyzed the potential health impacts of allowing the scrapper to open in an environmental justice community.
The results of that health analysis, announced Tuesday, show Southside Recycling is unlikely to add significantly to the health hazards already disproportionately faced by Southeast Siders, city officials said.
The analysis also found the scrapper will, among other things:
- Add to the community’s air pollution.
- Negatively impact residents’ mental health.
- Benefit the city’s recycling capacity and the Southeast Side’s economic development.
- Continue the city’s trend of concentrating heavy industry on the Southeast Side.
- Risk bringing water and soil pollution, explosions, fires and noise to the community.
The months-long analysis — which considered Southside Recycling’s potential impacts on health, environment and quality of life in three Southeast Side neighborhoods — makes no recommendation about the health department’s pending permit decision.
That’s because the city is still investigating “some apparent permit violations” discovered through the analysis at other Reserve Management Group facilities on the Burley Avenue campus, said Megan Cunningham, managing deputy commissioner for the Chicago Department of Public Health. More information will be available when the investigation is finished, she said.
A federal study of the potential health risks of pollution emanating from other Reserve Management Group-owned metal scrappers is ongoing, just days before a permit decision is expected, Cunningham said.
The city’s health analysis considered Southside Recycling’s potential impacts on East Side, Hegewisch and South Deering.
All three communities are among the top 25 percent in Chicago for toxic releases and proximity to Superfund sites, according to the health department.
The health risks and hazards posed by Southside Recycling’s opening would likely fall below federal benchmarks, according to a projection of pollution from the proposed scrapper and the four existing Reserve Management Group facilities.
The projection, performed by consulting firm Tetra Tech, found cancer-causing pollution emitted from the Burley Avenue campus would add less than one additional cancer risk per million people.
It also found “no appreciable risk” that non-carcinogens emitted by the facilities would cause immediate or long-term health effects, said Jeff Harrington, Tetra Tech’s air quality program manager.
Tetra Tech evaluated the impacts from numerous aspects of Reserve Management Group’s recycling operations, from crushing and torch cutting scrap metal to the diesel exhaust given off by its equipment.
The company used computer modeling to simulate air emissions traveling downwind of the Burley Avenue campus, as well as to calculate ambient air pollution and the amount of pollution deposited into the communities’ soil over time.
The projection’s findings are based on extreme conditions, so the actual health impacts would likely be less severe, Harrington said.
The projection assumed the Burley Avenue campus operates nonstop — in reality, it actually doesn’t operate at nights or on Sundays, Harrington said — and also assumes residents would remain in one location nonstop for up to 70 years.
Tetra Tech’s analysis also found “consistently high levels of manganese throughout the site,” as well as a storage area north of the Southside Recycling site with “high levels of lead,” Harrington said.
The pollution projection did not consider the impacts of decades of industry at the Burley Avenue campus, once home to the Republic Steel mill. Aside from the four existing Reserve Management Group facilities and the proposed Southside Recycling operation, it also did not consider any other industrial activity in the three communities.
“Tetra Tech’s component is just one piece of a multi-faceted analysis that [the health department] is doing to look at the cumulative impacts and burdens on this neighborhood,” Cunningham said when asked why the projection didn’t consider the cumulative impacts of the neighborhood’s pollution.
Southeast Siders have long resisted adding more heavy industrial facilities within an “area of environmental justice concern” for state environmental regulators.
Moving an industrial operation from Lincoln Park to a community already overburdened with pollution — as noted by the city’s own air quality and health report — is “disgusting” and an example of “environmental racism,” they’ve said.
The health analysis found Southside Recycling would likely “maintain the status quo” as it relates to cancer and other health risks in the community.
But “even to maintain status quo, in some cases, can mean to perpetuate existing health inequities for the Southeast Side,” Cunningham said Tuesday.
Residents have filed federal civil rights complaints, sued city officials and held numerous rallies and protests in an effort to block Southside Recycling’s operation. Several residents held a month-long hunger strike against the facility last year.
Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García and Chicago Board of Health members Carmen Vergara and Dr. Steven Rothschild are among the public officials who have called on the city to deny permits for Southside Recycling in recent weeks.
Southside Recycling is already built and has been ready to open since early 2021, said Randall Samborn, Reserve Management Group spokesperson. The company spent $80 million building its facility in anticipation of receiving an operating permit, officials said.
The project would employ 65 existing Reserve Management Group employees and create 35 jobs, for which the company would prioritize hiring community residents, Cunningham said.
If the city allows Southside Recycling to open, officials could reduce some of the potential negative impacts found in the analysis by enacting “strong permit conditions,” Cunningham said.
These could include requiring Reserve Management Group to regularly patrol and sample for pollution, maintain a weather station and particulate matter monitors and treat all water discharged into the sewer system.
But permit conditions ultimately require “some reliance on the company to do the right thing” to be effective, Cunningham said.
After Reserve Management Group acquired General Iron in 2019, a pair of explosions forced its temporary closing in 2020. Weeks after the scrapper reopened and one week after Reserve Management Group paid the city $18,000 to settle all outstanding municipal violations, a scrap pile fire occurred on site.
A detailed report on the Southside Recycling health impact assessment will be released at the same time the permit decision is announced this week. Other aspects of the assessment, including the federal health study and an analysis of community input, will be released by Feb. 28.
“Policy and process changes,” intended to improve environmental protections for Chicago’s vulnerable communities, will follow the permit decision and release of the report, officials said.
“Perhaps the most important finding from this [analysis] is this concept of embedding cumulative impact principles in zoning, permitting and enforcement, and to ensuring that we are engaging the community in any decision-making,” Cunningham said.
It’s been 15 months since Southside Recycling’s initial application, which the city rejected as “incomplete,” and 13 months since the facility’s second attempt.
Health department guidelines say the city will decide on a recycling facility’s application within 60 days after the application is posted online. Under that timeframe, a decision was expected last March.
Tuesday’s meeting was originally scheduled for last month, but it was delayed by a COVID-19 outbreak on a city research team and “COVID-related lab slowdowns,” health department spokesperson Ivonne Sambolin said.
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