Sims’ air pollution tests may be botched, EPA says

Residents want to know what hazardous metals are being spewed into the air near homes and schools. They’ll have to wait to find out.

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Some Pilsen residents are concerned about air pollution caused by Sims Metal Management. Recent air testing may have been botched, the EPA says.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Pilsen residents wanting to learn more about toxic pollution from a nearby scrap metal-shredding operation will have to wait after government-mandated air monitors apparently failed to work properly.

In April, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered Sims Metal Management to install high-grade air monitors, including at three locations closest to homes and schools, to determine if the scrap yard may be releasing harmful levels of toxic metals and other pollution. 

Sims shreds and recycles cars, appliances and other large pieces of scrap metal at 2500 S. Paulina St. along the Chicago River, near several schools and hundreds of homes. Residents complain about smells and pollution from the site, and a number of community members are trying to shut the business down

Though the air testing draws interest from the Pilsen community, the readings of hazardous metals, including lead, mercury, chromium and cadmium, can’t be trusted, the EPA said. And the data are also potentially flawed for large particle pollution.

“EPA has concerns that the monitoring equipment did not work as designed,” the agency said on its website. “Specifically, EPA is concerned that the monitoring equipment may have pulled in either too much or too little air, potentially invalidating the results.”

Three days worth of results for pollutants known as volatile organic compounds were analyzed, however, and EPA said it didn’t believe there were “short-term” health effects from those emissions at Sims. However, there was “not enough data” to determine long-term effects. 

An EPA spokeswoman said the agency is working with the company to sort out the findings. Additional testing is planned. In a statement, Sims said it’s working with hired experts and promised the concerns “will be addressed as quickly as possible.”

Sims, which has run afoul of pollution laws, is seeking new operating permits from the state and the city. 

The mishap puts the city permit process on hold as public officials say they want to see EPA data before going forward with public hearings for Sims’ permit.

At least one Pilsen activist worries about a drawn-out fight like the one over General Iron’s proposed move to the Southeast Side. After years of community protests, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration denied the business’ operating permit this year.

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

Sims was sued by the state last year for allegedly failing to show it is containing pollution. The EPA is trying to determine if the facility is violating the federal Clean Air Act.

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

Editor’s note: This article was updated to include Sims Metal Management’s response.

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