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Arwady advisers urge her to block metal shredder, but its operator rips process as ‘ambiguous’

The company that built a car-shredding operation on the Southeast Side says the city has no justification for denying a permit, while health advisers are warning of consequences.

A controversial scrap-metal operation is awaiting a decision on an operating permit at East 116th Street along the Calumet River.
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A pair of advisers to Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady publicly urged her to block a metal-shredding operation from opening on the Southeast Side, while the company’s owner ripped the city’s related health impact assessment, calling it “ambiguous and unwarranted.”

The two views illustrate the challenge for Arwady, who is expected to make a decision next month on an operating permit for Southside Recycling, formerly known as General Iron, to operate on East 116th Street along the Calumet River. The facility is already built and ready to operate but it has faced intense pressure from community activists and environmental groups who say the area already suffers from poor air quality and cannot stand more pollution.

A number of health officials have weighed in on the matter, including Dr. Steven Rothschild, a member of the Chicago Board of Health and chair of the Department of Family Medicine at Rush University Medical Center.

“I really want to put my voice out there and say I hope that we will find a way to seek an alternative and block this approval,” Rothschild said at a board meeting last week. The board advises Arwady and Mayor Lori Lightfoot on health policy but does not give explicit directions.

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.
Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady
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On the same day as the meeting, Southside Recycling owner Reserve Management Group accused Arwady and Lightfoot in a letter of giving in to opponents. RMG said it has a legal right to operate and has accused the city in a lawsuit of breaking an agreement on the business’ move from its longtime home in Lincoln Park. In addition to multiple lawsuits, the matter is the subject of a federal civil rights investigation questioning whether the city’s planning, zoning and land-use practices are discriminatory.

The newly built shredder sits idle next to existing businesses that RMG says it has been operating for three decades.

“The Southeast Side has faced more than its fair share of environmental concerns that residents have bravely brought to light and fought to remedy but RMG has never been the target of those fights,” company Chief Executive Steve Joseph said in a letter.

Joseph said in his letter that a health assessment of the proposal wasn’t warranted because his company already provided an environmental analysis as part of an earlier review process by city and state officials.

“Your decision to embark upon an ambiguous and unwarranted health impact assessment that lacks any objective standards not only goes outside the boundaries of relevant law and regulations, but also ignores and diminishes the significant work and robust analysis already completed,” Joseph said in the letter.

His letter was signed by more than 1,300 people identified by the company as a combination of its employees, vendors, other business people and some residents, though there are no affiliations attached to the names. It’s unclear how many people who signed the letter are from Chicago.

The legal and economic arguments are countered by health officials, such as Rothschild, who notes that the operation will contribute to more pollution in an “environmental justice” community. Such areas are defined as low-income communities of color that face large numbers of environmental and health burdens.

“I think there is more than enough data at this moment to reject this,” Rothschild said at the meeting. “I’m just going to call out our values as a department on environmental justice.”

Another board member also spoke to the issue, saying approving the business’ permit may foster distrust of the city among residents.

“I do have concerns about public trust in public health,” said Carmen Vergara, chief operations officer at Esperanza Health Centers.

Arwady said last week she was limited in what she could say about the decision, citing the ongoing litigation. Her staff has said scientific data will help guide the process.

In an interview, Rothschild said he felt Arwady was in “a very tough position.”

“We espouse values and try to adhere and follow them. The city rules may or may not allow them to go forward,” he said. “Our job is to reduce or eliminate the environmental hazards that lead to poor health.”

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