Organizers rally against renewal of metal shredder permit

Dozens of people, including Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, gathered near the site of Sims Metal Management, where they demanded a public hearing with city officials as part of the permit review process.

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Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) speaks as dozens gather for a protest against alleged toxic pollution blowing from Sims Metal Management in the 2500 block of South Paulina Street in Pilsen on the Lower West Side.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

On a day of remembrance for civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., several Southwest Side environmental groups held a rally in Pilsen to allege environmental racism on the Southwest Side as a metal shredder company awaits approval for a new operating permit.

Dozens of people, including Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), gathered near the site of Sims Metal Management, where they demanded a public hearing with city officials as part of the permit review process. The group also called for tests to be performed to better understand the facility’s environmental impact.

At one point, protesters blocked at least a half dozen trucks from leaving and entering Sims, at 2500 S. Paulina St.

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“We continue to see the cumulative effects of the environmental injustices in our communities … across the city of Chicago,” Sigcho-Lopez told the crowd as he held a sign that read, “People before profits.”

“Affluent communities don’t have to deal with this, white-washed communities don’t have to deal with this. But our communities, our Black and Brown communities, in the middle of the pandemic, continue to suffer,” the alderperson said.

Sims applied for a new operating permit from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration and is awaiting two additional approvals from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Southwest Environmental Alliance president Theresa McNamara accused Lightfoot and Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady of “only thinking about their pocket” and not in the best interest of the community.

“The cumulative impact of ... these companies [on our communities] isn’t taken into account,” said McNamara, who added that city officials are “blindsided” by the money. “They are looking at the purse only — they’re not looking at how it affects our babies, how it affects the pregnant women; they’re walking through the communities and not know that there might be a spill.”

McNamara worries that some of the companies are going unchecked and the amount of pollution isn’t being properly regulated.

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.

A spokeswoman for the company didn’t immediately return the Sun-Times’ request for comment Monday night.

McNamara hopes rallies like Monday’s raise awareness among local residents.

“We’re trying to get the people in our community to step up and come with us and to join us in talking to the mayor and saying, ‘You got to do something. You got to stop ignoring us,’” McNamara said. “Not one person is going to be able to do it, but if we have more people at each of our rallies, the better. It just grows.”

McNamara said the environmental groups plan to hold more protests and attend the Jan. 26 City Council meeting.

“There’s quite a few organizations that are stepping up that are coming to the table and saying, ‘Yeah, we got to do something about this,’” McNamara said. “It’s something you can’t see, but you’re definitely feeling it. You end up taking your son or daughter to the hospital for asthma.”

Contributing: Ashlee Rezin and Brett Chase

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