Lightfoot halts General Iron permit after pressure from Biden’s EPA chief

Newly appointed EPA Administrator Michael Regan says a thorough review of health hazards from the proposed facility should be done because Southeast Side pollution issues “epitomize the problem of environmental injustice.”

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Activists in March protest near Mayor Lightfoot’s home demanding she deny the permit needed for a car-shredding operation to open on the already environmentally burdened Southeast Side.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

President Joe Biden’s top environmental official told Mayor Lori Lightfoot he has serious concerns about a controversial car-shredding operation proposed for the Southeast Side, prompting the mayor Friday to indefinitely suspend the city’s permit review of the facility until a thorough pollution assessment can be completed to determine the health impacts on the community.

In a letter dated Friday, newly appointed Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan told Lightfoot that allowing another polluting business to operate in the area is problematic given the significant environmental hazards that already exist, including poor air quality, and that a study is warranted.

“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 said. “This neighborhood currently ranks at the highest levels for many pollution indicators.”

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Regan identifies those hazards as fine particulate matter, toxic pollutants in the air that pose cancer risk, respiratory threats, proximity to traffic and hazardous waste sites, lead paint and wastewater discharges.

Almost 250 facilities in the area are actively monitored for pollution, he said, and “since 2014, more than 75 facilities in the southeast area have been investigated by the U.S. EPA, Illinois EPA and the City for noncompliance with the Clean Air Act.”

Owner Reserve Management Group, which acquired the General Iron scrap metal shredding operation in 2019, needs a city permit to open a rebranded, rebuilt facility at East 116th Street along the Calumet River. General Iron operated in Lincoln Park for decades, drawing complaints from neighbors about smell, dust, noise and even an explosion. The move of an operation from white, wealthy Lincoln Park to Latino-majority East Side has raised concerns about environmental racism and is the focus of a civil rights complaint being investigated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

EPA has been closely following that investigation, Regan said.

“Because of these well-known degraded environmental conditions, the siting of this facility in Chicago’s southeast side has raised significant civil rights concerns,” Regan said. “EPA believes the issues raised by the HUD complaint deserve your careful consideration as the City weighs its environmental permitting decision on the RMG facility.”

Specifically, the EPA is asking the city to complete a health impact assessment “to meaningfully consider the aggregate potential health effects” of the proposed shredding operation. This would include a “robust analysis” of air quality data and would compare that with other parts of the city.

“Such an analysis would help to illustrate the direct link between the environmental burdens in this community and the health of the residents,” he said, adding that EPA can help with the assessment.

In a statement, Lightfoot said she’s directed the city’s health department to initiate an environmental study “as a direct result of this request” from EPA. It’s unclear how long such a process would take but environmental studies can be extend for months.

Last year, HUD also asked the city to hold off on issuing the permit.

RMG needs one last permit from the city and was already given a construction permit by Illinois EPA, which is now a source of discussion between the state and federal environmental agencies. While U.S. EPA weighed in with public comments during that state permit process last year during then-President Donald Trump’s Administration, Regan said they “do not reflect the current priorities and policies” of his agency.

In a statement, RMG said cumulative air modeling it conducted showed that the shredder will not exceed pollution limits and those findings were reviewed by state and city officials. The “facility will meet or exceed all applicable environmental and health standards,” the company said.

An EPA spokeswoman said the agency had no comment beyond the contents of the letter.

The letter states that the EPA administrator and the mayor had a discussion about the matter on Monday and Regan said his agency would “welcome further dialogue.”

“We understand this permit is only one piece of the complex environmental challenges facing the community,” Regan said. “I want to assure you that the U.S. EPA remains committed to working collaboratively with state and local partners to address our shared environmental priorities, advance equity and improve the health of all residents.”

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

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