A fire that started in a pile of scrap at a Sims Metal Management plant in the Pilsen neighborhood last weekend underscores residents’ concerns about the facility as Sims seeks a new operating permit from the city.
Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, whose ward includes Pilsen, told the Tribune on Wednesday that the presence of the Sims plant in the neighborhood has left many residents with unanswered questions.
“In a community already being burdened by pollution for decades and generations,” Sigcho-Lopez said, “it’s time for us that we demand the community impact study promised by the U.S. EPA and Chicago Department of Public Health.”
“There’s no accountability for these companies, despite these promises,” he added.
On Saturday afternoon, a supervisor at Sims noticed smoke coming from a pile of bulk scrap metal that was going to be recycled. Though no flames were visible, the Chicago Fire Department was called “out of an abundance of caution,” according to an initial statement from Sims.
Firefighters responded in five minutes and sprayed water on the pile until the smoke was no longer visible, according to the statement. No injuries were reported. A CFD spokesperson confirmed the department responded to a call at the plant.
Pilsen resident Edmundo Diaz, 68, told the Tribune he didn’t know about the weekend fire, but added that smells coming from the plant are not unusual, which makes him uncomfortable. Though neighbors have complained numerous times to the city, he said, nothing has changed.
“Nobody listens to us,” he said.
The Sims scrap-metal recycling facility, at 2500 S. Paulina St., sits along the South Branch of the Chicago River. For years, the neighborhood has fought to shut down Sims as operating permits from the city and state remain in limbo.
In 2018, the U.S. EPA alleged the Pilsen facility violated air quality laws by emitting fugitive particulate matter, which can cause respiratory problems. Sims paid a $225,000 civic penalty.
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul sued Sims in 2021 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.
In September, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency granted Sims a construction permit to enclose its controversial shredder to reduce emissions of particulate matter and volatile organic material from the facility. A week later, the U.S. EPA mandated the company monitor the ambient air around the facility so the federal agency could measure its compliance with the Clean Air Act.
The U.S. EPA said the monitoring equipment “did not work as designed” in the early testing results from September. But in results released Jan. 30, the U.S. EPA said no pollutant concentrations that would cause human health effects from short-term exposure to the air in the area around the facility were found in November and December. But more data is needed to evaluate long-term risks.
Sigcho-Lopez saidthe city needs to conduct a study that looks at the cumulative impact of pollution in the neighborhood before renewing Sims’ operating permit. So far, there is enough evidence that the facility is not safe, he said, and that it must be moved to a nonresidential area. Currently, there are 2,500 children in proximity of the plant, Sigcho-Lopez said.
According to the alderman’s office, residents reported “strong chemical smells” that were “causing headaches and nausea” on Saturday afternoon. Concerns echoed those of Little Village residents when Hilco’s demolition of a former coal plant created massive dust clouds in April 2020.
“Operations were able to resume immediately after the CFD gave the all-clear,” the Sims statement said. “We apologize for any concern this incident may have caused our community neighbors.”
On Sunday, Sigcho-Lopez requested that the U.S. EPA share all data available from the air monitors before, during and after the fire. According to Sims, while the 24-hour particulate matter air quality standard was not exceeded during the fire, there were elevated readings on the north monitor for a period of time /during the blaze.
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While air monitoring data from the month of February wouldn’t normally be available until March 30, the U.S. EPA has asked Sims to expedite the data available for Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
Inspectors from the U.S. EPA and the city have visited the Sims facility since the fire Saturday.
“It was clear there was no emergency plan, no way to notify the residents,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “If this would’ve been a bigger fire or a bigger issue, there was no contingency plan.”
Last fall, Pilsen residents had had enough: They organized a public meeting in a local church with community leaders and IEPA Director John Kim to discuss the scrap-metal recycling facility’s presence in the neighborhood and to express opposition to the city’s possible renewal of an operating permit that Sims applied for in November 2021.
“Our community is right to be upset and push back,” Sigcho-Lopez said.
Chicago Tribune’s Maddie Ellis contributed.