The city of Chicago is delaying issuing the final permit for a controversial metal shredding and recycling company on the Southeast Side.
Southside Recycling, which is owned by the company that until last year operated General Iron in Lincoln Park, has long planned a move to the neighborhood.
But last week, the head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency asked Mayor Lori Lightfoot to conduct an environmental justice assessment in the community before allowing the company to operate.
“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,” EPA chief Michael Regan wrote in a letter to Lightfoot.
“U.S. EPA suggests,” the letter says, “that the City complete an environmental justice analysis, such as a Health Impact Assessment, to meaningfully consider the aggregate potential health effects of the proposed RMG facility on the southeast area of Chicago.”
The Lightfoot administration immediately agreed to delay a decision on the facility’s permit, a move that has been applauded by activists on the Southeast Side.
“It’s definitely a step in the right direction in creating equity in Chicago, and reforming broken land use and zoning policies that continue to concentrate industry in low-income communities of color in Chicago,” said Gina Ramirez, Midwest outreach manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council, and an environmental activist in the neighborhood.
Ramirez says she expects the city’s analysis to take a “comprehensive look” at the impact of pollution on the Southeast Side, where she says asthma and cancer rates are higher than other parts of the city.
But a spokesperson for Reserve Management Group (RMG), parent company of Southside Recycling and General Iron, called the EPA’s recent letter an “improper insertion into the process.”
“It appears to be wanting to do something that’s been done repeatedly, to the satisfaction of both the Illinois EPA and the Chicago Department of Public Health,” said RMG spokesperson Randall Samborn. “And we don’t know where there’s any regulatory basis for it.”
The company has asserted repeatedly that their facility on Chicago’s Southeast Side meets environmental and health standards, and includes new technology to sharply limit emissions.
“The design of the facility includes a capture and control system, filtering, and emissions cleaning systems that only exist [at] perhaps a few other shredders anywhere in the country. We think that the combination of what we have and the way we’ve designed it really sets a new industry standard anywhere in the country,” Samborn said.
Chicago’s Southeast Side has struggled with pollution and a score of other environmental issues for decades. It’s long been a center of manufacturing and a dumping ground for many industries.
Ramirez says it’s precisely those reasons why she and other activists oppose Southside Recycling’s presence in the neighborhood.
“We are sick and tired of being the dumping ground,” she said. “For the city of Chicago, we think that concentrating industry on the South and West sides, which are BIPOC communities, is unfair, and that’s not creating an equitable Chicago,” Ramirez said. “We need to look at the cumulative burden, which is exactly what this environmental justice analysis will be doing.”