City health official defends Southeastern metal shredder’s denial of permit

A senior city health official testified Wednesday that the permit denial of a Southeastern metal shredder was decided on multiple factors, including residents’ concerns about cumulative air pollution and high rates of chronic disease in the community. surrounding.

Megan Cunningham, deputy commissioner of the city’s public health department, said a comprehensive analysis of the health and environmental factors of three neighborhoods, East Side, Hegewisch and South Deering, convinced Chicago officials to reject an application to open an auto and scrap metal shredding plant on East 116th Street along the Calumet River.

“Our goal is to protect and promote public health,” Cunningham said during a city administrative hearing on the refused permit. “Community conditions are themselves the result of policies.”

Cunningham added that city officials were concerned about the “inherent risk” posed by large scrap metal operations, including potential explosions.

“A permit is only as strong as a company’s willingness to comply with it,” Cunningham said, defending the permit rejection last February.

Reserve Management Group, the firm that owns the shredding operation, wants an administrative law judge to determine whether the city exceeded its authority in withholding permission for the relocated and renamed General Iron operation that was rebuilt in the south- east after moving from its longtime location in Lincoln Park.

General Iron was acquired by a Reserve Management affiliate in 2019 after signing an agreement with the city that established a timeline for closing the Lincoln Park facility and moving it to the Southeast Side. Even as community members protested the move, holding rallies and even a hunger strike, Reserve Management launched a new shredding operation — at an estimated cost of $80 million — confident it would get city approval.

During cross-examination, Reserve Management attorney Jeffrey Rossman asked Cunningham a series of questions related to the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s involvement in the shredding permit, a related civil rights investigation by federal officials for housing and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s possible influence in the matter.

The permit denial was made by Lightfoot appointee Dr. Allison Arwady, who heads the Chicago Department of Public Health.

But it was Lightfoot who put the process on hold in May 2021 after EPA Administrator Michael Regan, appointed by President Joe Biden, recommended conducting a health impact analysis to determine whether a community already overburdened by the environmentally it would have suffered from the further pollution.

Reserve Management lawyers argued that the health impact assessment should not have been part of the process.

Cunningham said such health assessments are conducted regularly across the country and have allowed his department to take a more comprehensive approach to deciding permission.

Some of the factors that influenced the city’s decisions included the high levels of particle pollution common in the Southeast, lack of access to health care and high rates of chronic heart disease and other illnesses, he said.

Rossman compared a zoning board’s approvals for the crushing site in 2019 with those from the health department’s assessment.

He noted advanced pollution controls that have been put in place for the rebuilt General Iron.

Rossman also questioned why a rival metal shredder, Sims Metal Management, was able to continue operating in Pilsen without proper pollution controls.

Sims, who is at odds with federal environmental laws, is building new pollution controls and must obtain a city operating permit.

It is unclear whether the judge who decides the permit issue will be convinced.

Administrative Law Justice Mitchell Ex has repeatedly asked Reserve Management lawyers not to stray too far from the decisive question: Did Arwady adequately follow the rules when he was denied operating permission last February?

Reserve Management attorneys have requested a subpoena from Arwady to testify at an upcoming hearing, a request Ex said he would consider. Last year, Ex rejected a request by the same lawyers to take a deposition from the public health commissioner.

Brett Chase’s environmental and public health reporting is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.

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