What’s the Problem with a Facility that "Recycles" Cars?

General Iron

Patrick Houdek/Flickr

Adding to battles with mountains of petcoke, neurotoxic manganese and proposed new asphalt crushing and contaminated sediment storage facilities, residents of Chicago’s Southeast Side now are speaking out against General Iron’s plans to shut down its notorious auto shredder on the high-rent North Side and reopen in their community—and a growing body of evidence supports their fears that car shredders can be significant sources of air, water, and soil pollution.

While car shredding facilities are well known to their neighbors as sources of dust, noise, noxious odors, “auto fluff,” explosions and toxic fires (including a fire at General Iron’s facility in 2015), to date they have flown under the regulatory radar relatively speaking. Now U.S. EPA is citing Chicago shredder General Iron with multiple violations of the Clean Air Act, paralleling a similar action last year against the city’s only other auto shredder, located in Pilsen. These steps, along with recent actions by states like Minnesota and California, indicate that regulators are finally documenting and acknowledging the negative impacts that neighbors of shredders have cited for years. And they support Southeast Side residents’ objections to siting a new auto shredder three blocks from the community’s high school and a popular public park.

On the air side, car shredders are not only associated with toxic hazmat fires that can negatively impact air quality for miles. According to the U.S. EPA notice of violation (NOV), General Iron’s shredder also emits significant amounts of smog-forming pollutants, which can have impacts on local health as well. Indeed, U.S. EPA cited General Iron for exceeding the federal major source threshold for these pollutants, which is significant given that Chicago is not in compliance with national ambient standards for ozone. Such smog-forming pollutants can occur when the shredder rips apart car components like gasoline tanks. Based on the EPA NOV and General Iron’s state air permits, it appears that the company did not disclose these emissions in its permit applications for its shredders. Tiny particles of metal from the shredder and dust from the facility are also concerns from an air quality and public health perspective.

In addition, processing of auto shredder residue produces “auto fluff,” a material that can qualify for treatment as a hazardous waste. Such fluff has allegedly been found over a half mile from the General Iron facility, raising serious questions about the handling of the material by General Iron.

And auto shredders have been cited with violating their stormwater discharge permits and sending high levels of heavy metals into the nation’s waterbodies.   

Other cities and states are addressing environmental concerns with car shredders very differently than in Chicago—where the city has put forth a new project plan that would provide public tax increment finance (or TIF) dollars to General Iron’s proposed new shredder. As noted above, in 2017 a Minneapolis car shredder agreed to pay $2.5 million and move outside of the city to settle a lawsuit with Minnesota state environmental regulators over a ten-year-old shredding facility. Legal filings in the case point to serious concerns with misleading representations that the facility would be totally enclosed to control air pollution. Neighboring St. Paul banned metal shredders in the 1990s. The State of California is proposing to regulate car shredders as hazardous waste facilities, based on a comprehensive study showing a long list of environmental hazards from these operations, from ongoing air pollution to hazardous fires to soil contamination and polluted stormwater runoff.

Residents of Chicago held their press conference on Monday to tell General Iron and the City that they are tired of being a dumping ground for the dirtiest businesses. They objected to the use of public tax dollars to help a company with a history of environmental violations relocate up the street from Washington High School and on the banks of the Calumet River. And they called on the city to adopt comprehensive protections that will ensure a healthy, vibrant community for them and their families.  

General Iron’s facility is not just recycling the neighborhood’s aluminum cans, they are ripping apart cars that release extremely dangerous materials and pose serious risks to the community. Chicago should follow the lead of other cities and states and not allow a facility that poses such health risks to the community to locate near homes, schools, and other public places.

About the Authors

Meleah Geertsma

Senior Attorney, Environmental Justice, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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