CHICAGO -- On Friday, city health officials denied a permit for a scrap metal plant that was planned for a predominantly Latino neighborhood. This victory went to residents who have fought the project for over two years and led to concerns about "environmental injustice" by the Biden administration.
After more than a year of delays, meetings with the public, the Department of Public Health denied the operating permit to Reserve Management Group. This prevents the metals and electronics recycling company from proceeding with its plans. According to the city's website, it stated that the refusal of the permit meant the company could not operate the Southside Recycling facility.
Oscar Sanchez, a 24-year-old youth activist from the Southeast, said that it was like winning the Super Bowl while being the underdogs. He participated in a hunger strike last year and is a longtime Southeast resident. "We are going up against institutions that cost millions of dollars and powerful individuals."
Reserve Management Group responded Friday to the inquiry, saying it would pursue all avenues of challenge to this decision, including litigation.
Community activists had criticised the proposal of the company to close its General Iron business in the wealthy North Side neighborhood Lincoln Park and establish a new Southside Recycling site. This is a predominantly Latino and Black working class community located about 20 miles from the proposed location.
Many believed the move was certain after , a city-approved exit plan was announced in late 2019. This plan was created under Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency also approved permits to the project in June 2020.
The city's permitting process was obstructed by environmental groups and residents from the Southeast Side. They questioned how a company with a history in noise complaints, explosions and air pollution could open shop in a community that has a higher incidence of asthma and chronic diseases than the North Side.
Michael Regan, the Biden administration’s top environmental official, wrote to Lightfoot in May that the neighborhood ranked at the highest levels of many pollutants indicators. The city agreed that it would conduct a impact analysis, with the results being used to guide its permitting decision.
Residents brought lawsuits against the city to stop the project. Reserve Management Group sued the city last summer for more than $100million to force it to approve the permit. A federal judge dismissed the complaint and ruled that the city had "the right to carefully consider proposed land uses."
After a series virtual town halls, city health officials admitted that the opening of another industrial facility in an already heavily populated area with salvage yards and manufacturing plants would negatively impact residents' quality-of-life.
Officials from the city raised concerns about potential emissions from the company’s shredding operations. However, a consultant hired to the city stated that he didn't believe there would be an increase in people's health.
In a Friday statement, Allison Arwady (the city's health commissioner) stated that "We are committed towards protecting and enhancing Chicagoans' health, environment and quality of life." The findings of the (health impact assessment), together with the inherent risks associated with recycling operations, and concerns about the company’s past and possible noncompliance, are too important to ignore in an already vulnerable community.
An alliance of environmental and community groups celebrated the announcement by declaring that it could be a turning point in communities that have suffered environmental racism for many decades.
Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was Regan. He said that the city had done the right thing by protecting residents' health.
Regan stated in a statement that "this is how environmental justice looks like: All levels government working together to protect vulnerable community from pollution in their backyards."
Reserve Management Group, however, accused city officials Friday of being "cowed" by "perpetual false narratives and misinformation that aimed to demonize our business." In a statement, the company stated that it had proposed a "conscious Metal Recycling Facility" but that what should have been an apolitical permit process was hijacked and hijacked by small but vocal opposition who long ago declared they would unconditionally reject this facility. Science and facts be damned.
Sanchez stated that, despite a win, he feels betrayed too by the mayor's office, other elected officials, but there is another reason. Those who initially endorsed the project only changed their minds after being pressured by the federal government and the community.
"We see the hypocrisy. Sanchez stated that this is the most astonishing thing about the country. "There is so much political theatre that's taking place. Pollution is making us sick. But the political theater is what is killing us.