Debate about a proposed metal recycling facility in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood got heated Thursday morning when activists arguing for and against the new project squared off outside of Ald. Danny Solis' (25th) office.
The $30 million metal shredding facility, run by Pure Metal Recycling, is proposed for 15 acres of land near Cermak Road and Loomis Street near the South Branch of the Chicago River. It would be on the same block as Benito Juarez Academy, 1510 W. Cermak Rd., and a few blocks from another metal shredding facility, Sims Metal Management, at 2500 S. Paulina St.
Supporters of the project say it would bring much-needed jobs to the area and is slated to be an environmentally friendly, state-of-the-art facility.
But environmental activists claim the new facility would be at a high risk for fires and explosions and bring increased air and water pollution, soil contamination, truck traffic and noise pollution to the neighborhood.
“They’re saying they’re going to be totally unlike any other facility, and totally brand new and clean, but its like playing Russian Roulette by putting it next to a school,” said Jerry Mead-Lucero of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO). “Maybe they’ll pull off this miracle and it’ll be unlike any other recycling facility. But if they don’t, it’s going to be awfully bad for the community. They’re taking too big of a risk.”
During the protest, activists with PERRO delivered a letter to the office of Solis, calling on him to reconsider his support for Pure Metal Recycling’s plans to build the metal shredding facility in Pilsen.
“If you’re going to build this amazing, high-tech, clean, safe recycling facility, first do it somewhere away from homes, away from schools, and prove that it can happen,” Mead-Lucero said. “But don’t take chances next to a high school, next to a residential area.”
In their letter to Solis, members of PERRO pointed to instances of pollution near metal recycling facilities in Texas and California and “determined that such a facility does not belong so close to a high school and residential parts of the neighborhood.”
“I live across the park from this supposed new shredder and I’m concerned for my safety and the children at Benito Juarez,” said Leila Mendez, a volunteer with PERRO who has lived in Pilsen for 46 years. “Statistics show that at least one fire a month is caused at these types of plants, that’s very dangerous. I don’t think we need that here; there’s other places for them to go.”
Here's for more from Mendez and Thursday’s demonstration:
PERRO’s demonstration was interrupted by a handful of Pilsen residents who said the neighborhood needs the new jobs and criticized PERRO for protesting a facility that hasn’t been built instead of focusing on the already existing Sims Metal Management.
“These folks are not complaining about the dirty company that’s already there, when the new company will be a greener, cleaner recycling company,” said Emma Lozano, a pastor for the Lincoln United Methodist Church. “It’s hypocritical to say they don’t want a new company when they haven’t said anything about the dirty one that’s already there.”
The metal shredder would operate under the most current and tough Environmental Protection Agency guidelines at the city, state and federal levels, unlike older facilities like Sims, Pure Metal Recycling spokesman Matt Butterfield said during a Zoning Board of Appeals hearing in January.
Also, the company will create 100 full-time jobs with benefits at the site, Butterfield said at the time.
“What are we going to do to bring jobs here? We need Pilsen to be a place where we can live and work,” Lozano said, adding that she and fellow activists have collected roughly 1,000 signatures from Pilsen residents who support the proposed metal shredder.
But Mead-Lucero said PERRO has been complaining about Sims for years, arguing that the plant pollutes the air and water and piles of scrap metal can be seen along the banks of the Chicago River in the area.
"We've been in contact with the U.S. EPA about that quite a bit and, in fact, the EPA has gone out and investigated based on our requests," he said. "We don’t like Sims. Sims is a disaster and we don’t want to see another Sims in Pilsen."
When asked whether he would support a move to shutter Sims, Mean-Lucero said PERRO hasn't taken an official position.
"They're not so close to the high school. They're a pretty good distance from a residential area and they're a union operation that pays good wages, so we're not sure what the best solution for that plant is," he said. "Whether they should close down or just clean up their act, I'm not sure."
The argument between Lozano’s group and PERRO got so intense that eventually Chicago police were called in to intervene and one protester was put in handcuffs. No charges were filed, according to Mead-Lucero.
Meanwhile, Pure Metal Recycling is part of a joint venture with Brett Baron, son of the owner of the Bridgeport-based Acme Metal Refinery, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Acme has shelled out almost $200,000 in Illinois political contributions since 1999, with $32,000 — the biggest portion of the contributions — going to Solis' 25th Ward Regular Democratic Organization, the newspaper reported.
Pure Metal Recycling has attempted to distance itself from Acme, as reported by DNAinfo Chicago.
Solis' office is attributing the alderman's support for Pure Metal Recycling's new plant to community support.
"After many community meetings over the past several months, Alderman Solis has received 759 signatures of support from Pilsen residents, demonstrating the community's enthusiastic support for the Pure Metal Recycling project," a spokesperson for Solis' office said in a statement. "Residents cited the company's emphasis on hiring locally, maintaining proper environmental safeguards and protecting against any potential safety issues in this decision and Alderman Solis believes this project strikes the right balance between creating local jobs and protecting the community."
But members of PERRO say money is fueling the alderman's support for the project.
"Acme is definitely behind Pure Metal, and Acme donates to Solis' organization," said Mead-Lucero. "I think money is definitely a factor in Solis' support for this project."
Nonetheless, activists are calling on him to step in and prevent the plant's construction.
"Recycling sounds like a good thing — we all support recycling — [but] the reality is that the process to actually recycle metal is quite polluting and quite a problem," said Mead-Lucero. "It's something we don't want done close to homes and schools ... We need the alderman to hear us and step in and stop this."