City rejects $500 million in asphalt bids over pollution concerns

McKinley Park’s MAT Asphalt, others will have to resubmit bids later this year after new public health recommendations are issued.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s chief sustainability officer cited an asphalt plant that opened directly across from McKinley Park two years ago as an example of an industrial zoning issue that would get more public scrutiny under the mayor’s proposed ordinance.

MAT Asphalt in McKinley Park and several other companies will have to resubmit bids for city work that include pollution controls.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration has rejected bids for more than $500 million in city work sought by a McKinley Park asphalt maker and several rivals, saying that the companies must show plans to control pollution.

The announcement follows outrage from community organizers in McKinley Park, who have been complaining about pollution and odor from MAT Asphalt for the past four years.

MAT alone bid on the entire scope of work — providing city crews with asphalt for street repairs and potholes — and submitted lower bids than its competitors for at least four of five areas of the city. Increased production would significantly add to air pollution and foul odors, community members said, a sentiment echoed by seven alderpersons and almost two dozen community, environmental, health and social justice organizations.

“We see an opportunity to revisit this bid in a way that would allow us to responsibly procure the asphalt needed to support our transportation infrastructure, while also protecting the environment and human health and promoting sustainability,” according to a city statement.

The city’s Transportation Department will issue a new solicitation for bids in October “that will incorporate a variety of [city public health] recommendations to minimize onsite and air pollution from truck emissions, reduce odors, noise and dust and optimize energy consumption,” the statement said.

MAT has been a lightning rod of controversy since it opened in summer 2018 on West Pershing Road across from the community’s namesake park. Hundreds of complaints about odor and air pollution have been filed with city and state environmental officials. MAT is challenging in state court $4,000 in city fines related to the complaints.

The plant’s co-owner Michael Tadin Jr. has said those complaints are exaggerated. He’s also said that his state operating permit allows him to make as much as 890,000 tons of asphalt a year and that the McKinley Park operation didn’t produce half that amount in 2021.

“We look forward to the added environmental requirements for all bidders and we plan to rebid to whatever the specifications are in October,” Tadin said in an interview Tuesday.

Tadin has said that his plant has better pollution controls than rivals. Two of those local rivals, Ogden Avenue Materials and Reliable Asphalt, teamed up for a bid on the city contracts that are now being revised. That joint venture currently is doing the work across the city under an existing contract. Compared with that contract, Tadin said his bid would save the city $50 million over five years.

Earlier this year, MAT submitted lower bids than the Reliable Ogden joint venture on all five geographic areas of the city, according to a city document. Plote Construction of Hoffman Estates appeared to have a low bid for one section of the city. A very small piece of the contract included a material, which was bid on by Contractors Equipment Rentals of Elmhurst.

Since the beginning of her time in office, Lightfoot has been critical of the process that allowed MAT Asphalt to open across from McKinley Park with little notice given to the residents ahead of time. State environmental officials should have flagged the project for neighbors in the Latino-majority, low-income community that suffers poor air quality, activists said.

Lightfoot and her top environmental policy officer, Angela Tovar, have said the city should strengthen planning and zoning laws to slow the addition of pollution in communities already burdened by air pollution. In April, Lightfoot’s administration announced a citywide cumulative pollution impact study.

“This is an important first step but now the city must show they are serious about environmental justice,” Alfredo Romo, executive director of McKinley Park’s Neighbors for Environmental Justice, said in a statement. “The cumulative impact of decades of environmental racism will require time, care and true community engagement to address.”

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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