Environmental worries at recycling center busted for stolen catalytic converters

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Federal officials have been alerted about potential environmental problems at a West Side recycling center whose owner was arrested last week on charges of trafficking in stolen catalytic converters.

The state Environmental Protection Agency notified the federal EPA of unspecified problems after 47-year-old Felipe Gomez, the owner of Gomez Recycling, and five of his employees were arrested Wednesday, according to the Chicago Police Department.

The company in the 4000 block of West Chicago bought hundreds of catalytic converters from undercover police officers during a one-year investigation dubbed “Operation Hot Pipe,” Cook County prosecutors say.

Soon after opening in 2011, Gomez Recycling drew the ire of politicians and West Side residents, who said the facility encouraged neighborhood thieves to steal metal fences, gutters and other recyclables.

“People have lost barbecue grills,” said Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) whose ward borders Gomez Recycling. “I have even had to replace two sewer lids in my yard that people took to the scrap yards. You see whole fences gone overnight. It’s a huge problem for our community.”

Ervin called Gomez Recycling “among the worst” recyclers in the area. He said he worries about potential spills of oil, transmission fluid and other contaminants from auto parts brought to the facility.

Gomez Recycling, as well as Gomez Transmissions on the same property, have been hit with more than $20,000 in city fines for environmental violations in recent years, records show.

About a year ago, the Chicago Police Department began investigating Gomez Recycling after getting reports of catalytic converter thefts in the Morgan Park police district on the Southwest Side. Investigators found the thefts were occurring across Chicago and in Schaumburg, whose police department assisted in the probe.

Catalytic converters — emission-control devices attached to a vehicle’s exhaust system — contain precious metals including platinum, palladium and rhodium. The prices of the metals have shot up hundreds of dollars an ounce in recent years, making them attractive to thieves.

The police seized about $300,000 in cash from Gomez and his five employees arrested last week. Chief of Detectives John Escalante said he hopes the bust will send a message to other recyclers not to buy stolen auto parts.

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