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Deny Southeast Side metal shredder’s permit, UIC dean — a former CDC official — tells Lightfoot

Wayne Giles also said the city’s health and environmental impact review is “unjust and unacceptable” as the city reschedules a public meeting on the shredder for Dec. 9.

Opponents of General Iron’s move to the Southeast Side occupy the intersection of Milwaukee, Diversey and Kimball during a protest near Mayor Lightfoot’s home earlier this year.
Opponents of General Iron’s move to the Southeast Side occupy the intersection of Milwaukee, Diversey and Kimball during a protest near Mayor Lightfoot’s home earlier this year.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A high-profile academic leader and some faculty members at University of Illinois at Chicago are telling Mayor Lori Lightfoot she should deny a permit for a controversial scrap-metal operation to open on the city’s polluted Southeast Side.

“The well documented excess burden of pollution already experienced by residents living in Southeast Chicago is strong enough evidence against a permit,” UIC School of Public Health Dean Wayne Giles said in a letter to Lightfoot Wednesday.

Giles, who has been UIC health school dean since 2017, was joined by eight faculty members who co-signed the letter. A medical doctor who held leadership roles during a 25-year career at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Giles is one of the most high-profile local health leaders to weigh in on the proposed metal shredder at East 116th Street and the Calumet River. The letter also tore into the city’s process for analyzing the health threats to residents calling it “unjust and unacceptable.”

Separately, Southeast Side activists said Wednesday they plan to demonstrate outside of Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady’s home this month. Arwady, who also formerly worked at the CDC, is expected to make the decision on a permit early next year.

Southside Recycling is the rebranded business formerly known as General Iron in Lincoln Park. Owner Reserve Management Group built a new facility on the Southeast Side and is awaiting the final city permit but concerns about a new burden for a heavily polluted, low-income community of color stalled the process. Southside Recycling sued the city over the delay though it has been unable to speed up the process. The operation would shred junked cars, appliances and other items for the resale of metals.

In his letter, Giles noted high levels of pollutants known as “particulate matter,” including fine soot that can become deeply embedded in the lungs. Southeast Side residents are at risk of breathing metals in the air, including lead, nickel and manganese, he said. Other health factors, including limited access to medical care, add further stress, the letter said.

“There is a high level of traffic and a multitude of polluting industries in the area, as well as disproportionate differential access to medical care and services,” the letter said.

Giles noted that UIC scientists will be submitting another letter to detail “extensive” concerns about health and environmental data the city has so far presented related to the pollution burdens in the area around the scrap metal operation. He chided the city for failing to better engage with residents, saying officials are “in direct conflict with racial justice and health equity principles” the mayor committed to when she declared racism a public health crisis in June.

In a November public meeting, city officials referenced an air pollution review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that community advocates criticized as downplaying the threat of particulate matter. At the meeting a city official highlighted the health, social and quality of life disparities between Lincoln Park and the Southeast Side.

The city confirmed Wednesday a second public meeting will in fact be held Dec. 9 after it was rescheduled from this week.

The relocation of a polluter from a white, affluent North Side neighborhood to the low-income Latino and Black Southeast Side is the subject of a federal civil rights investigation.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.