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Why Biden’s EPA chief stepped into a Chicago permit controversy

Michael Regan tells the Sun-Times the agency is taking a hard look at “some of the more egregious cases” where low income neighborhoods of color are environmentally burdened — like the Southeast Side.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan, pictured here with Mayor Lori Lightfoot during a visit to Chicago in May, announced a “roadmap” to address PFAS contamination, especially in drinking water.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot this month halted the permit application process for a Southeast Side metal shredder at the request of EPA Administrator Michael Regan.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A sustained protest by community activists, a civil rights investigation and data showing the Southeast Side is one of the most polluted areas in the country drew President Joe Biden’s administration into a city permitting controversy involving the relocation of car-shredder General Iron.

In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times Thursday, Michael Regan, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said the planned move of the scrap-metal shredding operation to a low-income neighborhood that is already highly polluted is a prime example of the environmental justice concerns the Biden administration wants to remedy.

“As we look at what we perceive to be some of the more egregious cases out there that we need to weigh in on ... this popped up on our radar,” he said of the controversy.

At Regan’s urging in early May, Mayor Lori Lightfoot halted the permit process until the city and EPA can perform testing to determine the cumulative impact of adding an additional polluter to an already environmentally burdened area. General Iron’s owner Reserve Management Group has since sued the city for holding up its permit. RMG says its own modeling has shown the facility’s emissions will not exceed legal limits.

In an interview with the Sun-Times, Regan said the General Iron saga is an example of a decadeslong problem the Biden administration wants to attack — the practice of placing polluting industrial operations in low-income communities of color that already suffer from poor air quality. The East Side location where RMG wants to begin shredding cars, appliances and other scrap metal is majority Latino and is home to a number of other industrial operations.

“We do need systematic changes that take into consideration the potential impacts to communities,” Regan said. “When you look at the Southeast Side of Chicago, it has some of the highest pollution indicators in the country. We have to take that into consideration when we think about future activities in a community.”

Separate from the EPA and city studies, a division of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agreed to do an assessment of potential health hazards around the site of the RMG metal shredder at East 116th Street along the Calumet River, Senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin announced Thursday.

In addition to EPA and now CDC’s involvement with the issue, federal housing officials are looking into whether the move of General Iron out of Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side violated the civil rights of residents on the receiving end of the business.

RMG is seeking to open on the Southeast Side.
Google

‘We’re listening to the people’

Regan was in Chicago Thursday where he participated in a news conference about Biden’s infrastructure plan and met with Lightfoot to discuss next steps for testing air pollution on the Southeast Side. He also traveled to the Southeast Side to meet with community organizers to hear their concerns.

“Environmental justice is a top priority for the agency,” Regan said. “As we’ve taken a look across the country, we’ve recognized the disproportionate impact that many communities are facing. And we’re listening to the people.”

As for the Southeast Side, in particular, he added: “There is a reason for the community to be concerned and it is important that we listen.”

Community activists, including those who staged a hunger strike earlier this year, say Lightfoot hasn’t listened to their concerns.

At the news conference Thursday, Lightfoot said “we’re going to deepen the relationship” with the EPA and vowed to focus on environmental inequities in the city but also noted that she wants to “strike the right balance” of environmental protection and economic development.

“We’ve got to protect our residents,” Lightfoot said. “That’s the primary responsibility but we also have to do it in a way that balances the desire of many of these communities to make sure there are jobs available.”

Lightfoot’s own environmental efforts have been stymied by aldermen. After pushing for an air pollution ordinance, the mayor faced pushback from council members and, after repeated tries, a law was passed that environmental groups didn’t support because they said it was too weak.

This week, a low-income housing project next to the MAT Asphalt plant in McKinley Park was approved by the City Council even though some Lightfoot administration officials raised concerns about the health impact on residents.

Some neighbors have repeatedly complained about the plant, which began operations almost three years ago on Pershing Road across from McKinley Park. Regan said he’s been briefed on those concerns.

The EPA is working with state environmental officials on requiring MAT’s owner to conduct an emissions test and Regan said he hoped that would be completed in the coming weeks.

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