CHICAGO – Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin urged USEPA Region 5 today to require four metals facilities on Chicago’s Southeast Side, a heavily burdened environmental justice community, to install monitors for toxic metals and other air pollutants. In the past year, the facilities have been cited by the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) for air violations and by the Illinois EPA for failing to have required air permits. The Illinois senators are requesting that the USEPA investigate the potential contamination from years of unpermitted operations and the current, ongoing pollution from the facilities through monitoring.
The request comes on the heels of the implosion of a coal plant smokestack by warehouse developer Hilco on Easter weekend that caused a massive cloud of toxic dust to spread over Little Village, another environmental justice community.
“We are bombarded with toxic pollution from a list of industries, including those that have flown under the agency radar for years. The USEPA has to take into account the health of the people who live and work in the Southeast Side and put a stop to this vicious cycle of polluters using our neighborhood as their dumping ground. This is especially true given the high rates of respiratory illness and other health conditions in our community due to pollution, which make us particularly at risk from COVID-19,” said Peggy Salazar director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force.
The request, in the form of a formal letter to the USEPA’s Region 5, for action invokes the same authority that the agency has used to investigate health threats created by petcoke and manganese pollution in the Southeast Side. While CDPH proposed new regulations that would require some metals recycling facilities to install air monitors back in May of 2019, it has not finalized those regulations to date.
The facilities located on Burley Street are part of a business venture planning to move the notorious North Side metal recycler General Iron to the Southeast Side. General Iron has recently come under greater enforcement pressure by the CDPH since late 2019. The City agency has investigated and issued violation notices to the Lincoln Park facility multiple times since December for air pollution, including recurring shredder emissions, fugitive dust, and dispersal of auto shredder “fluff.” In contrast, according to its online inspection database, CDPH has not inspected the S. Burley Street facilities for air pollution purposes since October, despite the facilities’ lack of state air approvals coming to light earlier in the fall.
“By not monitoring these polluters, the USEPA is failing to protect our health,” said Gina Ramirez, Midwest outreach manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The metal scrappers on Burley Street, across from Washington High School, have already shown that they can’t be trusted to follow the law. The Hilco debacle in Little Village shows the same. Monitors are essential because government agencies can’t send inspectors every day, and the burden shouldn’t be on the community to report when a facility isn’t controlling its pollution.”
The facilities on S. Burley Street are about a half-mile from Washington High School, which has registered the highest levels of several harmful metals in the state in previous years. Community residents fear that metals levels are much higher at the Burley facilities’ borders on the Calumet River and public streets.
“These metal shredders are some of the most dangerous polluters in the city,” said Olga Bautista, co-chair of the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke. “Adding another massive polluter to the Southeast Side is terrible for the future health of our community. The metal shredders where General Iron is planning to set up shop are currently violating public health laws and yet the City is not stopping them from expanding. USEPA needs to step up and hold them accountable.”
Residents are also calling for more inclusive state and local permitting processes that take into account the cumulative burden placed on the community by the S. Burley Street metals operations in addition to the proposed General Iron facility, along with the many other adjacent industrial polluters.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at NRDC.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.