Elementary school student Apollonia Jackson raised an orange inhaler into the air.
“This is what keeps me alive,” Apollonia, 9, said into the microphone at St. Paul Catholic Church in front of hundreds of people seated in the pews before her.
Apollonia and 13-year-old Joshua Graves led attendees in chants and calls to action at a public meeting last week to discuss pollution in Pilsen.
“Let’s tell the city: Clean. Our. Air,” Joshua said, as claps and shouts resounded through the church.
The crowd demanded environmental justice for the Southwest Side, home to neighborhoods like Pilsen, where an industrial corridor borders the South Branch of the Chicago River and residents have endured decades of pollution.
The smelting company H. Kramer & Co. contaminated the soil with lead, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Fisk power plant emitted high concentrations of carbon dioxide before it was shut down in 2012. Now, another battle wages against Sims Metal Management, which owns a scrap-metal recycling facility at 2500 S. Paulina St.
Most recently, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency granted Sims a construction permit on Sept. 15 to enclose the controversial shredder to reduce emissions from the facility. Meanwhile, Sims is facing ongoing regulatory action from the city, state and federal government as community opposition to its operation grows.
On Sept. 23, Sims began U.S. EPA-mandated monitoring of the air around the plant so the federal agency can measure its compliance with the Clean Air Act.
Now, community members are planning a march to Sims’ door.
Sims Metal is a division of Sims Ltd. The metal recycler has more than 200 facilities with operations in more than 15 countries, according to its website. The company has previous alleged environmental violations:
In 2014, a Sims Metal facility in California was fined by the U.S. EPA for violating the Clean Water Act and pouring debris into San Francisco Bay.
In 2018, the U.S. EPA alleged the Pilsen facility violated air quality laws by emitting fugitive particulate matter. Sims paid a $225,000 civic penalty. High levels of particulate matter can cause respiratory problems.
In October 2021, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul sued Sims for failing to show that it had reduced uncontrolled emissions in Pilsen. Raoul alleged that Sims’ emission of volatile organic materials, which are harmful chemical compounds, violated the Illinois Environmental Protection Act.
Sims said in a statement that the construction of emissions controls represent a $15 million investment “to be part of the environmental solution” to pollution caused by industry.
“These significant upgrades to our environmental monitoring systems and the planned upgrades to our environmental control systems will allow us to continue being a good neighbor and provide industry leading recycling services in Chicago,” said Réal Hamilton-Romeo, global head of corporate communications and marketing for Sims Ltd.
But environmental activists say the construction permit granted by the IEPA is merely a “Band-Aid” on an area overburdened by a long history of pollution. Some said they feel it represents a state agency giving the facility a green light to continue operating, while many in the community are campaigning for the opposite.
“They are not welcome in our community,” the Rev. Emma Lozano, pastor of Lincoln United Methodist Church, said at Thursday’s meeting.
Pursuing this construction permit was part of the interim order Sims entered into after the lawsuit brought by Raoul.
The construction permit allows Sims to install equipment to reduce emissions. According to Sims’ application filed to the EPA, the controls added to the shredder will significantly reduce emissions of particulate matter and volatile organic material.
“The installation of a control train will reduce emissions from the facility by a minimum of 81%, though Illinois EPA anticipates reductions closer to 90%,” IEPA spokesperson Kim Biggs said in an email to the Tribune.
But many in the community expressed concerns over Sims’ application for the construction permit after it was first filed in December. In April, Donald Wink, a professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois Chicago, submitted a memo to the IEPA with concerns about the permit, including:
The application did not outline a plan for measuring pollution in the community.
There was no mention of noise or odor controls.
The new equipment will bring emissions of nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide.
After approving the construction permit, the Illinois EPA hosted a public meeting last month to address residents’ concerns and released a response statement explaining why the permit was issued.
“Importantly, the Illinois EPA does not have authority or review over land-use and zoning decisions. For land-use decisions within the boundary of the City of Chicago, this authority resides with the City,” the IEPA stated in the document.
IEPA Director John Kim, who attended Thursday’s meeting, was asked whether the community can continue to trust and confide in the IEPA. As the speaker introduced the question, audience members screamed, “No.”
Kim said that since becoming director, the IEPA has increased the number of cases it investigates and promised to continue enforcing compliance.
“I hope you continue to keep up the good fight,” Kim said in closing.
A city permit in limbo
This latest construction permit was one of several that are outstanding for the scrap-metal facility. The facility is still in the process of pursuing an operating permit from the state, which it applied for in January 2019.
Sims is also still seeking a renewed operating permit from the city of Chicago, which Sims applied for in November 2021. This renewed permit would require Sims to come into compliance with the city’s new rules for large recycling facilities, which went into effect in June 2020.
“If a renewal permit is issued, Sims would be required to operate as a much cleaner facility with significantly reduced impact on the community,” the Chicago Department of Public Health states on its website.
As this operating permit is considered, many advocates are calling on the city to follow the precedent established with its denial of Reserve Management Group’s permit for a similar scrap-metal recycling operation.
After closing General Iron’s metal shredder in Lincoln Park, RMG proposed opening a facility on the Southeast Side. Wink said RMG’s proposal included some of the pollution controls that Sims is now adding.
A lengthy battle ensued involving local activists and a federal civil rights investigation.
According to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city’s actions paved the way for the scrap operation to move from the predominantly white Lincoln Park to Black and Latino communities on the Southeast Side. According to a letter from HUD, Chicago could lose millions of dollars in federal aid unless it reforms its discriminatory zoning and land use policies.
The city denied the RMG permit in February, saying the facility would “present an unacceptable risk,” according to a news release.
“Concerns about the company’s past and potential noncompliance are too significant to ignore,” the city health commissioner said in a news release at the time.
At the end of the Thursday’s meeting, leaders passed out slips of paper with a few lines of text. At the top was Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s email address followed by a message: No permit for Sims. Cued by the speakers, attendees pulled out their phones and started typing, hitting send.
Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, who represents the Pilsen area, said at the meeting that the city is not doing enough to fight pollution. He also called on the city to ensure there is “due process” while considering the Sims operating permit.
“We cannot have a permit without a health assessment,” Sigcho-Lopez said.
A lack of data
One of the primary issues for those in Pilsen is the lack of data on Sims’ emissions.
In 2019, Sims conducted an emissions test at the facility, but two years later, a test ordered by the IEPA revealed that Sims’ efficiency to capture its emissions was likely less than 50%. As a result, the U.S. EPA said it can no longer rely on those results.
“There have been no other efforts to measure emissions from the facility to date,” a spokesperson for the EPA said in an email.
The new construction permit requires Sims to test its emissions within 60 days of the startup. At a Sept. 8 meeting, many questioned the reliability of any future data from Sims, Wink said.
“There was significant concern that I heard when I was in the audience about allowing somebody with a record of providing problematic data to be the ones who provide data in the future,” he said.
Citlalli Trujillo, a graduate student at UIC and member of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, said many people left that meeting confused and concerned.
“We don’t know how the health of the public is really being affected, no one has talked about that at all,” Trujillo said.
At the end of last week’s meeting, Lozano called on attendees to march on Sims on Saturday. They plan to meet at 10 a.m. at Benito Juarez Community Academy before heading to Sims.
A public meeting with the Chicago health department about Sims’ permit application is also scheduled for Oct. 19 at Benito Juarez. The health department will continue to accept written comments for at least five days after the meeting.
Initial data from the pollution monitors installed last month that measure the ambient air around Sims are due to the EPA on Oct. 30. These sensors will continuously monitor harmful emissions and sample for metal hazardous air pollutants and volatile organic compounds. These monitors were not installed and are not operated by the EPA, but the federal agency reviewed the placement and protocols, a spokesperson said.
After a “short review period,” the data will be made available to the public.