Pilsen residents deserve to breathe easy after latest environmental scare

The EPA and Sims Metal must sort out the problems with air quality monitors so Pilsen residents get the vital and accurate air quality information to which they are entitled.

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Pilsen residents deserve a prompt answer on whether Sims Metal Management is polluting the air in their neighborhood.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last April told recycler Sims Metal Management to install high-grade air monitors around the Pilsen neighborhood that could detect if any toxins from the factory were being released into the community.

And for good reason. Without the proper protections, the metal shredding process can release all kinds of metallic poisons into the air, including lead, mercury, chromium and cadmium.

But now the U.S. EPA has found that readings from the monitors Sims installed are flawed and their results can’t be trusted, Sun-Times Environmental Reporter Brett Chase wrote this week.

The EPA and Sims must get this matter sorted out — and quickly — to make sure Pilsen residents get the vital and accurate air quality information to which they are entitled.

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Editorials

‘It’s out of hand’

The Sims company shreds and recycles cars, appliances and scrap metal at a sprawling site at 2500 S. Paulina St. in an industrial area along the South Branch of the Chicago River.

But the location is also close to schools, homes and public parks, and is not far from the National Museum of Mexican Art.

Residents have complained about smells and pollution from the site, and some community members are trying to shut the business down altogether.

It’s a situation that has what has become an all-too-familiar ring as of late. South Deering residents and activists have spent recent years fighting to keep General Iron — a known Lincoln Park polluter — from moving its metal salvage facility to their predominantly Black and Brown neighborhood on the Southeast Side.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration denied General Iron, now called South Side Recyling, a business operating permit this year.

And in the largely Hispanic McKinley Park neighborhood, residents for the last four years have logged hundreds of complaints about odors and alleged pollution from MAT Asphalt, 2055 W. Pershing Rd.

So much so, MAT has racked up $4,000 in city fines now being contested by the company.

Then, of course, there was the botched 2020 demolition of the Crawford Generating Station smokestack, 3501 S. Pulaski Rd., that left the Little Village neighborhood carpeted in hazardous dust.

“It’s out of hand,” as Troy Hernandez, a volunteer with the community group Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, said of the Sims incident. “It’s frustrating because we just went through the same thing on the Southeast Side.”

Bring back the city’s environmental department

An EPA spokesperson said the agency and Sims are working to address the air monitor situation “as quickly as possible.”

Residents and regulators have some leverage here because Sims is currently seeking new operating permits from the state and the city — a process that’s now on hold because officials want to first see EPA data from the new monitors.

No permits should be approved until the situation is rectified and the air quality passes muster.

This latest incident brings to light again this Editorial Board’s opinion that Lightfoot must bring back the city’s Department of the Environment.

The city’s new six-member Office of Climate and Environmental Equity — smaller than a pothole patching crew — lacks the size and authority of the previous Department of the Environment.

And it’s certainly not big enough to adequately handle the current environmental portfolio, which includes climate change issues as well as addressing pollution and regulatory problems.

Meanwhile, a half-century of studies, lawsuits and other actions have shown how airborne toxins can shorten lifespans and lead to chronic and catastrophic health problems for those who live nearby.

Given that, maybe there should be a larger discussion about whether these industries belong in a modern Chicago.

But until then, we — as a city and state — must take steps to make sure that companies with the potential to pollute our air and water are rigorously monitored and, if warranted, fined for infractions.

If the city is really serious about protecting the environment, this is the best way to clear the air.

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