Chicago to conduct additional environmental study on Southside Recycling

The environmental study, recommended by the U.S. EPA, is the final step before the recycler can receive a permit to expand operations on the south side of Chicago.

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May 10, 2021

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has advised the city of Chicago to complete a specific, additional environmental analysis prior to reaching a decision on a permit requested by Cleveland-based Reserve Management Group (RMG) to expand Southside Recycling. RMG closed its General Iron Industries Inc. facility, which processed scrap metal and operated an auto shredder, on the north side of Chicago to open this facility on the south side. The company is seeking a permit to expand its south side location.

According to a letter written by EPA Administrator Michael Regan to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot the first week of May, the EPA is concerned about potential pollution from Southside Recycling.

“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 writes. “This neighborhood currently ranks at the highest levels for many pollution indicators used by the U.S. EPA’s EJSCREEN tool, including fine particulate matter, air toxics cancer risk, respiratory hazard, traffic proximity, lead paint, Superfund site proximity, hazardous waste proximity and wastewater discharges. Almost 250 facilities in the southeast area of Chicago are actively monitored by state and federal enforcement authorities under federal environmental laws. Since 2014, more than 75 facilities in the southeast area have been investigated by the U.S. EPA, Illinois EPA and the city for noncompliance with the Clean Air Act."

He continues, “Because of these well-known degraded environmental conditions, the siting of this facility in Chicago’s southeast side has raised significant civil rights concerns. … U.S. EPA believes the issues raised by the [Housing and Urban Development] complaint deserve your careful consideration as the city weighs its environmental permitting decision on the RMG facility.”

According to a statement from Lightfoot, she has requested 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."

In a statement, Southside Recycling writes that the Illinois EPA and the city of Chicago have independently reviewed the cumulative air quality modeling that has 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.

“Southside Recycling is subject to likely the most stringent set of federal, state and local regulations of any metal recycling operation in the country,” Southside Recycling says in a statement regarding the EPA’s latest recommendation. “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.”

Lightfoot says she thinks the CDPH study will be “the last step in an extensive set of permits needed by RMG to safely operate its large metal recycling plant in an area already zoned for industry.”

The city had contacted the EPA earlier this year seeking guidance regarding RMG’s application, considering the size and location of the facility.

“The city relies on state and federal agencies to help us appropriately assess a business’ potential impact on the surrounding community. In the case concerning RMG, the U.S. EPA has expressed several concerns,” Lightfoot writes. “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.

“My administration aims to foster economic growth and jobs in our communities, while improving the health and quality of life for our residents. In pursuit of this objective, I have directed the city’s chief sustainability officer and the Department of Public Health to propose a new cumulative impact ordinance for consideration by the city council before the end of this year. The ordinance would require an assessment of the additional environmental impact of an industrial business operation on the surrounding community when reviewing a permit application. We are also exploring additional policy steps the city can take to protect our most vulnerable communities from pollution as this ordinance is being developed," Lightfoot's statement adds.