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Residents of Pilsen force the city to “close its doors” to polluters

On the Southeast Side, residents succeeded in their campaign to get the city to deny a permit that would have allowed a scrap metal shredder to open in their neighborhood. In Pilsen, residents are waging a similar — but potentially more difficult — battle against Sims Metal Management, the owner of a crusher that has operated in the neighborhood since the 1990s.

Now, some say communities like Pilsen need to consider the cumulative effects of past and present industry actions.

“One big element that’s missing here is the cumulative effect of another license being renewed in one of the most polluted areas of the city and the country,” Ald said. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 15th, who last month filed a resolution co-sponsored by more than 15 City Council members urging the city to include a comprehensive neighborhood impact study in its review of Sims’ permit application.

Sims Metal Management has been criticized for years for failing to provide data on emissions from its metal recycling operation at 2500 S. Paulina St. In April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency required Sims to install air monitoring and report its data starting this fall. determine a facility’s compliance with the Clean Air Act. But the EPA said last week that the monitoring equipment “did not perform as intended” in the first results of testing from September 23 to 30.

Meanwhile, Simms’ permit renewal application is on hold as the city awaits “reliable data” from the EPA so it can hold a public meeting on the permit, according to a statement from the city’s Health Department.

Residents, already distrustful of Sims’ transparency after Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul sued it last year for alleged “uncontrolled emissions,” must now wait until December for the results of the October test. Repeated struggles with Sims’ data collection have led advocates to question the city’s ability to capture the overall impact of pollution in Pilsen.

Mary Gonzalez, a Pilsen resident and chairwoman of St. Paul’s Catholic Church’s social justice committee, said the goal of the Southwest Side movement is to illustrate the flaws in the permitting process through the example of Sims.

“If we slow down Sims, other polluters will start saying, ‘Damn, we’ve got to do something,'” Gonzalez said. “But it could be MAT Asphaltit could be Sims, it could be Oremus … Sims created the opportunity because they were such big violators that the attorney general had to sue them.”

A Sims spokesman said Wednesday that the company has added “additional checks” to its air monitoring equipment as required by the EPA. “We believe the issues have been resolved,” the spokesperson said in an email.

While the city has not shared plans for a specific cumulative pollution study in Pilsen, it is working on a citywide cumulative impact assessment. But that review is not expected to be completed until mid-2023.

“One thing that has become increasingly clear to us is the lack of any description, identification, regulation — anything related to overburdened communities in Chicago, Illinois, and the country,” Gonzalez said. “We are not alone.”

Sims’ city operating permit expired in November 2021, the same month the facility applied for renewal. However, this extension requires Sims to follow city rules large metal processing plantswhich went into effect in June 2020. Some of these requirements include noise monitoring and stricter emissions regulations.

But organizations in Pilsen want the city to shut down the facility because of concerns that emissions from the facility are contributing to higher rates of asthma and other health problems. Last month approx 50 people took part in the march from the Benito Juarez Public Academy to Sims chanting “No Justice, No Peace” and carrying signs that read “Sims Must Go!”

On the south-eastern side of the city RMG’s application for a permit was denied for a metal recycling plant after finding that potential changes to air quality and quality of life for surrounding communities posed an “unacceptable risk.” In February, the Department of Health noted that “this level of exposure assessment will not be required for existing businesses.”

But Sigcho-Lopez’s resolution calls for the city to take similar, if not more comprehensive, steps through a cumulative impact study.

Cumulative impact research considers how the effects of past and present industry actions stack up in the community. Currently, the permitting process considers a facility’s single-source emissions and impacts without considering existing pollution in the area, said Michael Keillos, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“It makes sense because legally, when you apply for a permit, you can’t be blamed for the pollution your neighbor causes,” Kailas said. “And that’s where the whole problem starts — there’s no framework that takes into account the total accumulated level of pollution when it comes to permitting.”

Kailas, who worked on the reports requested by Southwest Side residents, said industries can be well below emission limits, but when they are concentrated in one area, it can add up and affect human health.

According to this equation, the southwest side is the most congested area of ​​the city, where most of the asphalt plants and train stations are located. UIC report.

Kaylas said there is currently no standard federal methodology for conducting these assessments. The US EPA’s Office of Research and Development sets priorities a cumulative impact study in his plans for the next three years.

Like Sigcho-Lopez, the Southwest Environmental Alliance, a coalition of people fighting for environmental justice in the area, is also calling for a cumulative impact study to be included in the city’s review of the Sims permit. González, 81, lives in Pilsen on a side street near St. Paul’s Catholic Church. She recently said she saw two semi trucks drive past her house within 10 minutes from her front window.

“They don’t belong on my street,” she said.

The coalition, of which Gonzalez is a member, is meeting with policymakers at various levels of government to get them to agree to work on changing those permitting processes, which first starts with defining what an environmental justice community is, she said. For Gonzalez, that means making sure her community “bears its share of the burden, not everyone else’s.”

The coalition is in favor HB 4093, which stopped this year. This bill provides for a community definition of environmental justice and the implementation of permit application provisions for industries that emit emissions into the community’s air.

“They need to close the door here on the Southwest Side to stop polluters,” said Theresa McNamara, president of the Southwest Environmental Alliance.

Since late September, the Sims facility has had several monitors located around the fence line measuring several types of pollutants in the ambient air, including particulate matter, hazardous metal air pollutants and volatile organic compounds.

Based on initial testing results, the EPA said on Nov. 4 that it was concerned that equipment to monitor particulate matter and metal air pollutants — such as cadmium, mercury and lead — was not working as intended. The monitoring equipment may have drawn in too little or too much air, which could have invalidated the results, as air flow rate affects pollutant concentrations, the EPA said.

The EPA visited Sims last week to provide technical assistance and gather information about the equipment, the agency said in a statement to the Tribune.

Sims data for October must be submitted to EPA by November 30.

EPA’s review of that data now plays a role in the city’s review of the recycling facility’s permit application. A spokesperson for the health department said in a statement that it is reviewing Sims’ reinstatement application “deliberately and rigorously” and that without this data it “will not move forward” with the process. The department also described its overall study of the city’s pollution as a “long-term” goal.

The research aims to “mitigate the historical and current impacts of polluting industries on communities,” the health department said in a statement. The data will illustrate where pollution comes from and how loads vary across the city.

At a public meeting organized by the coalition last month, the head of the health department, Deputy Commissioner Megan Cunningham, said the study will help inform city policy and investment decisions, including the development of zoning ordinances and permitting actions that will require “systemic changes” to all levels of government.

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“CDPH cannot change the zoning law on its own,” Cunningham said at the meeting.

Months before the mid-2023 target to complete the baseline assessment, Sigcho-López said he hoped the Pilsen resolution would bring a sense of urgency to the need for “due process” in the permitting process.

He said he hopes it sets a precedent for how Chicago can value industries that operate in vulnerable neighborhoods, including long-standing ones.

“We strongly believe that this is an opportunity for us to begin to address the environmental racism that has been in our community and in our city for far too long,” he said.

Gonzalez said she knows overhauling the permitting process will take time.

“I don’t believe I’ll live long enough to see all there is to do,” she said. “But I also think a lot of people are starting to get involved.”



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