Crushing Cars Is a Loud, Smelly Business That’s Terrible for Air Quality

So take it somewhere else, says Chicago’s Southeast Side.

Scrap metal being processed at the General Iron Industries scrapyard in Chicago, July 2018

Credit: Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Metal crunches and shrieks at the General Iron Industries facility along the Chicago River’s North Branch near Lincoln Park. Here, an auto shredder flattens cars, appliances, rebar, and beams as water sprays down in an attempt to keep the resulting dust from blowing away. A potent stench fills the air.

The people living nearby complain that metallic particles blanket their patios and oily films glaze their cars. So much for the water sprays. And then there are the gas tank explosions and fires, like the one three years ago that sent dark plumes of smoke into the air.

General Iron has had a shredder operation here since the 1970s, replacing two smaller shredders with a bigger one in 2001. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has cited this new shredder twice for clean air violations. Despite this and neighborhood uproar, locally elected aldermen recently decided to extend an exemption granted to the facility in 2016 that lets the shredder run from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., three hours a day beyond what is normally permitted.

“I don’t know why the city doesn’t see these things,” resident Georgia Nicholson told the Chicago Tribune. For Nicholson, this blight on her community is coming to an end. General Iron Industries announced earlier this summer that it will be moving to a new location. But for the people of Chicago’s Southeast Side, where the company plans to set up shop in 2020, the fight is just beginning.

Such battles are nothing new for this low-income, primarily Latino neighborhood.

In 2014 activists fought to get giant piles of petroleum coke, a by-product of oil refining, out of their community. They succeeded in getting the oil facilities to move the petcoke (an ongoing process), but now, two years later, community members are in a fight against manganese, a potent neurotoxin, in their air and soil. Southeast Side residents are also taking on other new and proposed nearby pollution sources, such as a cement manufacturer and asphalt and zinc recyclers, to name a few. Now they can add the shredder to their list.

“We don’t need more scrappers here,” says Peggy Salazar, director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force. “It’s a nasty, dirty industry.” Southeast Side protesters gathered at the Lincoln Park facility in July and continue to speak out. Their worries go beyond loud noises and noxious odors.

Airborne Autos

Recycling materials that would otherwise go into a landfill may sound like a good idea, but shredders have “the real potential to be a major pollution source,” says Tom Cahill, a professor emeritus of physics and atmospheric science at the University of California, Davis, who has studied airborne particulates for decades. Cities and agencies should measure what’s coming out of each shredder and “guarantee it’s not causing a toxic problem for the people around it,” he says.

Auto fluff is a dusty mixture of plastics, foam, textiles, rubber, and glass from cars that can also be contaminated with rust, dirt, and a variety of fluids, and after a car is crushed, it can go airborne. In California, state regulators consider untreated auto fluff hazardous waste, and this past summer, they proposed requiring metal shredders that process vehicles to apply for hazardous waste permits.

In Minneapolis, ongoing complaints about air pollution from a scrap metal shredder led to a lawsuit by the state’s pollution control agency, which forced the owner to pay $2.5 million in fines last year and make plans to relocate its operations outside city limits.

In Chicago last year, Serap Erdal, an air pollution expert from the University of Illinois at Chicago, found high levels of lung-damaging particulate matter half a mile from the General Iron shredding site. EPA then required the company to collect its own data. General Iron hired a third-party contractor to conduct an analysis, but the company didn’t submit all the information requested on particulate matter or heavy metals. On the basis of the contractor’s results, the EPA issued the company a Clean Air Act violation in July, stating that the shredder could be emitting high levels of volatile organic compounds and didn’t have pollution control equipment to reduce emissions. General Iron has since handed over the additional information on particulate matter and heavy metals, and the agency is currently reviewing the data. It won’t comment on whether it’s looking further into the matter.

But then there are the airborne pollutants that aren’t even evaluated by the EPA. Cahill says iron dust, which auto shredders produce a lot of, is highly toxic and can cause breathing and heart problems. In 2008, he looked at the effects of a shredding facility in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles and found dangerously high levels of airborne iron and lead. Even though the EPA doesn’t regulate iron, it required the California company to put a filter on the shredder that reduced the worst pollutants by a factor of 10.

Hit the Road

According to General Iron, it will use the best available equipment and install air monitors at its new facility. “We try to use technology to be the best neighbor we can be,” says Adam Labkon, one of the company’s owners. But Meleah Geertsma, a senior attorney at NRDC who works on air quality and community issues, says even if General Iron runs a clean (for the industry) operation, it will still add to the air problems the community already has. These types of shredders, she says, just shouldn’t be near homes, schools, or public spaces, especially not in areas already exposed to large amounts of industrial pollution.

Across the United States, polluting facilities, including landfills and power plants, are disproportionately found in black and Latino communities. Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country, and research shows that the more segregated a city, the more pollution plagues the city as a whole, including residents of every ethnicity.

Once the current shredder leaves Lincoln Park, part of a larger effort to move polluting industries out, the area will become more desirable—so desirable, in fact, that city officials are trying to convince Amazon to build a headquarters there. But Lincoln Park would be moving up at the expense of dragging the Southeast Side further down.

“Who’s going to live there if you have things like toxic metals flying around in the air?” says Geertsma. “And who loses in that scenario? It’s not just the people who live there, though they bear the biggest burden—it’s the whole city.” After decades of being Chicago’s dumping ground, the Southeast Side is sick of putting up with the city’s scrap.

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