EPA gives Sims a passing grade on air; expert critic says testing is flawed

A UIC chemist calls the analysis from air monitoring around Sims Metal Management problematic, providing “no useful information for many important pollutants.”

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A machine picks up scraps of metal and loads it into a container at Sims Metal Management in the Pilsen neighborhood, Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 12, 2022. Sims Metal Management is a meta| and electronics shredding company.

A machine picks up scraps of metal and loads it into a container at Sims Metal Management in the Pilsen neighborhood.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file photo

The air around a Pilsen car-shredding operation that community members want to shut down doesn’t pose short-term health threats, according to a company analysis of recent testing.

At least one expert is calling the results from air monitoring around Sims Metal Management, 2500 S. Paulina St., flawed and says they provide “no useful information for many important pollutants,” such as heavy metals.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revealed the findings on its website after examining data provided by Sims from five air monitors. The EPA acknowledged caveats within the data, including unknown effects of certain pollution levels on health long term, and noted instances in which some harmful metals were simply not detected.

But, overall, EPA gave the facility a green light, and Sims called the data “encouraging” in a media statement.

“Monitoring data from October and November shows no pollutant concentrations that would cause human health effects from short-term exposure to the air in the area around the facility,” the EPA said.

The monitors test for harmful gasses known as volatile organic compounds, coarse particle pollution — such as soot — and harmful metals.

With each finding, EPA admits there are still unknowns.

More testing is needed to determine long-term health effects of volatile organic compounds and other air contaminants, for instance.

Daily average concentrations of coarse particle pollution emitting from Sims are below EPA’s allowed limits, however, the agency said it is analyzing spikes in those levels within some 24-hour periods.

Finally, the findings on harmful metals are particularly concerning to Donald Wink, a University of Illinois Chicago chemistry professor who has been working with community members to analyze pollution issues with Sims.

EPA said harmful metal levels weren’t high enough to be detected, a red flag, according to Wink.

“The actual data show that their monitoring system provides essentially no useful information for many important pollutants,” Wink said.

For instance, Wink notes that two metals — manganese and nickel, both tied to health problems, such as asthma — were not detected in recent testing. Both are likely present when cars and other metals are shredded onsite, but the question is will the monitors around Sims pick them up in the air?

Wink noted that the air monitors around Sims are far less accurate than an air monitoring system that’s installed at nearby Perez Elementary, which is about a mile from the scrap metal operation.

In an interview, John Mooney, director of air and radiation for EPA Region 5 in Chicago, acknowledged that the monitors at Sims aren’t nearly as sophisticated as the monitor at Perez but that they were much more affordable and practical to install quickly.

“It is achieving the goal we wanted to achieve. Those monitors are producing valuable, actionable information for the community, tracking what’s going on at that particular facility,” Mooney said. “We’re not seeing a bunch of toxic metal levels in that part of the community that are approaching the health benchmarks” set by EPA to indicate threats.

The Perez monitor has been in place for more than a decade due to concerns about lead in the air surrounding the school. Data from the monitor were used by EPA to reach a settlement with the nearby H. Kramer smelter in 2013.

The five air monitors around Sims, installed by the company under an EPA order earlier this year, are required as part of government actions against the company.

Last year, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul sued Sims for failing to show it limits the release of harmful air pollution.

Four years ago, Sims entered into a settlement with EPA over alleged pollution violations and agreed to pay $250,000.

The air emissions testing is needed as Sims plans to build new equipment aimed at controlling release of air pollution, which is also a step toward settling the lawsuit filed by Raoul.

Separately, the city requires Sims to apply for a local operating permit, and EPA-required air testing is expected to inform that decision.

Sims is required to apply for the same type of Chicago permit that was required for the rebuilt, relocated General Iron metal-shredding operation that was expected to open on the Southeast Side at East 116th Street along the Calumet River.

That permit was denied by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration earlier this year after a huge outcry from the community.

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

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