A proposal from the parent company of General Iron to operate a metal shredding and recycling operation on Chicago’s Southeast Side raises “significant civil rights concerns,” the head of the Environmental Protection Agency told Mayor Lori Lightfoot in a letter Friday.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, tapped by President Joe Biden to be the nation’s top environmental regulator, urged Lightfoot to conduct an environmental justice assessment of the “aggregate potential health effects” of the proposed shredding operation on the surrounding community before issuing the final permit the facility needs to start operating.
That assessment should include a “robust analysis” that compares air quality data on the Southeast Side to other parts of the city, 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,” Regan wrote.
Lightfoot immediately agreed to conduct the analysis as recommended by Regan and announced that the city would indefinitely delay action on the final permit Reserve Management Group needs to operate Southside Recycling at 11600 S. Burley Ave.
“The city shares the U.S. EPA’s commitment to environmental justice and public health, and we look forward to partnering with them to conduct a fair, thorough and timely health impact analysis to inform our future decision-making on the RMG permit application,” Lightfoot said in a statement.
The new proposed facility would "meet or exceed all applicable environmental and health standards," said Randall Samborn, a spokesman for Southside Recycling and Reserve Management Group.
The proposed facility would pollute less than the shredder now operating in Pilsen, Samborn said.
"Delaying Southside Recycling’s permit will only exacerbate the environmental justice burden in Pilsen," Samborn said.
Lightfoot also said she would craft a new ordinance by the end of the year that would “require an assessment of the additional environmental impact of an industrial business operation on the surrounding community when reviewing a permit application” and explore new ways to “to protect our most vulnerable communities from pollution” in the meantime.
Residents of the Southeast Side and environmental advocates have repeatedly urged the city to block the shredding operation from operating in the 10th Ward, a part of the city they said already experiences a disproportionate burden from industrial operations that cause air and soil pollution, traffic congestion and noise.
Regan’s letter echoed those concerns, saying the area’s already poor quality of life would be reduced by the new metal shredder. The company shut down its Lincoln Park operation — which drew numerous violations and triggered tens of thousands of dollars in fines — at the end of 2020.
“Substantial data indicate the current conditions facing Chicago’s southeast side epitomize the problem of environmental injustice, resulting from more than a half century of prior actions,” Regan wrote. “This neighborhood currently ranks at the highest levels for many pollution indicators.”
More than 250 operations on the Southeast Side have been investigated by the EPA for polluting the air with fine particulate matter that has been linked to a higher risk of cancer as well as respiratory disease. Other environmental issues in the neighborhood include heavy truck traffic and hazardous waste sites that are polluted with lead paint and wastewater, according to Regan’s letter.
“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 wrote in the letter that followed a conversation he had with the mayor Monday about the permit sought by Reserve Management Group.
Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th Ward) declined to comment to WTTW News.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is investigating a civil rights complaint prompted by General Iron’s move from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side.
EPA officials are “closely following” that probe, Regan wrote, adding that the agency under his leadership would have encouraged state officials to hold off on issuing construction permits for the facility.