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Pilsen metal shredder could become next big environmental battle in Chicago

Sims Metal Management faces scrutiny as it applies for a new permit from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration and two additional approvals from Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

An operator picks up scraps of metal and loads it into a container at Sims Metal Management in Pilsen this week.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

As a parent and decade-long Pilsen resident, Troy Hernandez worries a lot about the toxic pollution blowing from a nearby metal-shredding operation that sits along the Chicago River near homes and schools.

Just as a similar business — the scrap metal yard General Iron — operated in Lincoln Park for decades, the company now known as Sims Metal Management has been a longtime Lower West Side industrial fixture at 2500 S. Paulina St.

Sims shreds and transports large amounts of metal, including scrapped cars and appliances, emitting tons of chemicals and other contaminants into the air every year, though the limits are supposed to be tightly controlled so they don’t harm public health.

Like General Iron, Sims has a history of running afoul of pollution laws. It paid $225,000 to settle a federal environmental case in 2018 and, more recently, has been accused in a state lawsuit of inadequately controlling air pollution, potentially releasing more than 25 tons of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds in a single year. Sims admitted no wrongdoing in the federal case as part of the settlement and denies most of the accusations in the state suit.

The company has said its air emissions were “fully compliant with the levels outlined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s federal guidelines.”

Now, the company is facing more scrutiny as it applies for a new operating permit from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration and two additional approvals from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Sims presents another test case for politicians who have been criticized for not being tough enough on polluters in environmentally burdened communities.

Hernandez, who is a volunteer with the community organization Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, says it’s time for government leaders to get tough on polluters. He wants Sims shut down temporarily unless it can show that it is adequately controlling harmful pollution.

“We want to make sure these types of companies operate safely in the city,” Hernandez says. “If you can’t do that, then just shut it down.”

As a result of its federal settlement, Sims agreed to seek a state permit that shows it is adequately controlling air pollution. That process has dragged on for three years.

The state says the company doesn’t have sufficient controls to either capture or measure the pollution it’s releasing. Last month, Sims submitted a proposal with the state to build and install more controls.

The company also applied for a relatively new type of city permit — established in the past two years to address pollution controls from large scrap metal operations, which collect, shred and recycle metal for resale. A public comment period for the permit is open through next month.

Troy Hernandez, a Pilsen resident and dad to 2-year-old son, worries about the pollution from Sims Metal Management and its proximity to homes and schools.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Donald Wink, a University of Illinois Chicago chemistry professor working with PERRO, says he sees no way the city can make a decision on the permit until the emissions questions can be answered.

And Wink takes issue with the company’s reporting, saying in a paper prepared for public comment on the permit that “modeling analysis is associated with the uncertain nature of what Sims has been emitting and its impact on the community.”

Wink also worries about potential lead releases from Sims, a sore subject in Pilsen, which was exposed to high levels of the harmful metal for years. The foundry H. Kramer & Co., accused by the government of being the source of lead emissions, agreed in 2013 to install pollution controls.

Because of the lead concerns, a government-monitored air sensor was installed at Perez Elementary. While the air sensors show lead levels are clearly down from the years prior to the Kramer controls being put in place, levels have been on the rise more recently, Wink says.

Also, levels of chromium and manganese increased in 2019 and 2020, he found. Perez is one of two nearby elementary schools, along with Whittier Elementary. Juarez High School also is close to Sims.

“Sims Metal is fully committed to complying with the regulations and has submitted a timely application to address the regulatory requirements,” company spokeswoman Real Hamilton-Romeo says.

Sims, which is owned by an Australian company with locations around the world, “has already agreed to install advanced emissions control equipment … and the planning for that work is already under way.”

The city health department is beginning the process to review Sims even as it finalizes a decision on whether to allow a rebranded General Iron to open on the Southeast Side, a process that has led to protests — including a hunger strike.

Also, federal officials are investigating whether the city is violating the civil rights of residents who bear the brunt of zoning and land-use practices that Lightfoot’s own administration has called historically racist.

“Sims will come out of this permitting process as a cleaner operation with reduced burden on the community,” according to a written statement from the city health department.

The Sims permit is also another test for President Joe Biden’s administration, which intervened last year to ask Lightfoot to hold off on issuing a permit to the Southeast Side metal shredder.

The U.S. EPA not only became involved in that city permit decision but also questioned the state’s decision to green-light approvals for General Iron as it prepared to move from mostly white wealthy Lincoln Park to a new location in a working-class community of color known as an “environmental justice” area. The agency says it’s watching the state’s handling of Sims.

“U.S. EPA has engaged with the state regarding the environmental justice and civil rights analyses needed to support a decision for permits that have the potential for adverse and disparate harm in vulnerable communities,” according to a written statement from the federal agency, which also says it’s working to improve “impacts of permits on communities already overburdened by pollution.”

The Illinois EPA says it’s going through notification steps established for environmental justice communities like the Latino-majority Pilsen and is following a process it’s worked out with the U.S. EPA and the Illinois attorney general.

The state environmental office discovered the issues with Sims’ pollution testing and referred the matter to the attorney general, spokeswoman Kim Biggs says. That referral last July led to the requirement for the additional pollution control and new air-contamination modeling.

Hernandez, who has a son who is nearly two years old, wants political leaders to give Sims’ permit applications the scrutiny he says is being applied to the Southeast Side metal shredder.

“How are these guys still operating?” he says.

Sims Metal Management, seen here from the Canalport Riverwalk in Pilsen, has operated on a massive site for decades.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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