At the request of Illinois’ two U.S. senators, federal officials are turning up the heat on a controversial asphalt plant in McKinley Park.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it is working to make sure the state sets strict rules within an operating permit for the MAT Asphalt operation on Pershing Road across from McKinley Park, according to a letter sent to Sen. Dick Durbin from an EPA official in Chicago last week.
The letter from acting EPA regional administrator Cheryl Newton also notes that Latino-majority McKinley Park is a “community with environmental justice concerns,” a reference to the burden of cumulative pollution in a low-income community of color. Under President Joe Biden, the EPA is stressing the need to reduce pollution in environmental justice communities. In May, Mayor Lori Lightfoot halted the permit process for the relocation of the General Iron car-shredding operation to the city’s Southeast Side at the request of Biden’s top environmental chief — an action that community organizers had been pleading with the mayor to do for many months.
“EPA is working closely with the state agency to ensure that this facility’s operating permit includes all applicable requirements and that public concerns — including concerns about health impacts and environmental justice — are adequately evaluated and addressed,” Newton wrote in her July 20 letter to Durbin.
MAT has been operating under a state-issued construction permit since 2017 but will eventually need to obtain a full-time operating permit, a process that has been slowed in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Durbin, Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Reps. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Marie Newman, all Democrats, sent a letter to Biden’s EPA Administrator Michael Regan in late June, asking the agency to help provide oversight of the asphalt plant, including ordering “rigorous health impact analyses and air monitoring.” They note more than 100 odor complaints to the city from residents in the past three years.
Michael Tadin Jr., a city contractor and co-owner of the asphalt facility, has said the odor complaints are exaggerated and touts that he provides an essential service as an asphalt producer.
The legislators noted the plant is directly adjacent to two schools and across from a park in an area that “was already overburdened by pollution.” EPA data show McKinley Park, also home to a large Asian population, ranks high for the amount of cumulative air pollution and health risks.
“This cumulative pollution burden damages the health of residents and impacts their ability to safely recreate and enjoy their homes and community spaces,” the lawmakers wrote in their June 21 letter. “The operation of additional industrial facilities in this neighborhood, such as MAT Asphalt, places further stress on this overburdened community.”
In her letter to Durbin, Newton said the EPA conducted an inspection at MAT in 2019 and asked state officials to conduct air emissions tests “based on the concerns EPA staff found.” Those tests were supposed to be completed last year but the Pritzker Administration postponed them, citing the pandemic. The testing took place this week.
Tadin said he welcomes the EPA testing requirements.
“The agency asked us to do testing and we obliged,” Tadin said.
City Hall’s mixed messages
City Hall has been split on MAT. While city planners have lauded the plant’s central location for providing asphalt, a top adviser, Lightfoot’s housing commissioner Marisa Novara, held up a plan last year to put low-income housing next to the asphalt maker, which is also close to schools and the neighborhood’s namesake park. In May, the City Council approved the housing project, which found alternative funding. Separately, federal housing officials are investigating a civil rights complaint related to the Southeast Side car-shredder fight.
Novara also made public last year that the city was exploring whether MAT could be moved.
Late last year, a consultant for MAT provided the city with a plan to move just hundreds of feet at a cost of almost $32 million, according to the report obtained through the state’s open records law.
City planners “determined there is no public funding available to help pay the costs identified,” a city spokesman said. “Staff also determined there are no known alternative locations where the plant could lawfully operate in the city without generating similar community concerns.”
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.