A contested metal shredding plant slated for Chicago’s Southeast Side is now on hold after EPA Administrator Michael Regan cited “significant civil rights concerns” in a letter to the mayor.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that permits for the General Iron recycling facility would be paused after Regan urged the city to further analyze “aggregate potential health effects” before relocating the plant to a predominately Black and Latino community in South Chicago.
“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 Friday.
As a “direct result” of Regan’s request, the Chicago public health department will conduct the EPA’s recommended environmental study. The mayor also ordered the city sustainability and public health arms to propose a cumulative impact ordinance for City Council review by the end of the year, which would trigger additional environmental assessments in future permitting processes.
“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,” the mayor said in a statement announcing the permit suspension.
Waiting ‘No Longer an Option’
A coalition of community members and advocates lauded the move, which likely will cause a several-month delay of the plant.
The Southeast Environmental Task Force, Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, Natural Resources Defense Council and others said in a joint statement that it’s “past time” the city start using cumulative impact analyses when zoning projects in pollution-burdened communities of color.
“As the U.S. EPA has recognized, it’s no longer an option to continue to wait for the segregation and health disparities to deepen, the Lightfoot administration must act now, not just to protect the health of people on the Southeast side, but to protect all Chicagoans,” they said.
Reserve Management Group, the plant’s owner, said Southside Recycling has already undergone air quality approval processes that the city and state required. The plant is also the country’s most stringently regulated metal recycling facility, according to their statement on Lightfoot’s announcement.
“The U.S. EPA knows this is in stark contrast to other metal shredders,” the company said. That includes another site in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood that “has none of the air pollution controls and enclosures that Southside Recycling has,” it noted.
Southeast Side residents have been fighting for years to keep the controversial plant out of their community, which is already zoned for manufacturing sites that have pumped the area with pollutants such as lead and petroleum coke.
Activists petitioned the EPA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to review the city and state permitting process for the plant, in addition to launching a hunger strike and civil rights lawsuit.
An ordinance to examine cumulative pollution, in addition to the emissions of a single source, is a big victory, according to Olga Bautista, a Southeast Side resident and community planning manager at the Alliance for the Great Lakes.
That means pollution factors all around a plant will be considered in its permit process, which also could include sources such as diesel truck emissions—another huge problem in the area, Bautista told Bloomberg Law.
Although the permit wasn’t denied outright, Bautista said “there’s no way” the plant will open once the city does its own analysis on the public health issues residents have known about for years.
“That’s why the community is thrilled to hear this news, because we finally feel heard,” Bautista said.