By Rick Romano
Switching attention to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) indefinitely postponed a public hearing on the controversial MAT Asphalt plant at 2055 W. Pershing Rd.
Plant opponents, who had hoped to air their complaints at the hearing originally scheduled for March 23, said the delay to focus on the pandemic health crisis could strengthen their environmental justice concerns argument. The plant is running on a temporary operating permit.
A notice of cancellation by the IEPA noted the agency “plans to reschedule the hearing for a later date when a better assessment of the COVID-19 situation is known.” Rescheduling may take several months, as notice of public hearings requires a 45-day lead time.
In a March 26 memorandum, IEPA hearing officer Jeffrey Guy said the IEPA will hold the hearing at a “future yet undetermined date” and “The State of Illinois will continue to take proactive steps to protect the health, safety, and welfare of Illinois residents as this situation develops.”
A grassroots group of McKinley Park area residents formed Neighbors for Environmental Justice (N4EJ) after MAT established the plant in 2018. The group alleged the plant exceeds emission standards while producing an unpleasant smell amid smoke that affects the park and nearby homes.
Although 2019 statistics are not yet available, IEPA 2018 statistics show plant emissions of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and volatile organic material fell well within the limits of an original temporary permit.
In a statement, N4EJ said, “Although our organization and community was organizing in preparation for this hearing for months, we understand the necessity of canceling the hearing due to the public health crisis, and we always support actions that are taken to protect the health of our community”
Anthony Moser, N4EJ board member, said governmental actions to contain the coronavirus have “shown what we are capable of when we are serious about protecting public health. The coronavirus has mostly amplified the dynamics. If you can close a school, you can close an asphalt plant.”
Linking coronavirus and alleged public health dangers from industry, a number of local elected officials, health care experts, and an environmental group representative sent or endorsed letters to Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Governor JB Pritzker.
Citing the the U.S. EPA’s March 26 decision to suspend the nation’s pollution regulation infrastructure, the letter noted, “Your leadership the past several weeks has ensured that the State of Illinois is doing everything in its power to stop the spread of COVID-19.” The letter also noted, “We urge you to use your executive powers for our respiratory health and that of our residents as we fight to survive this pandemic with our families unbroken.”
Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th Ward), State Senator Tony Munoz (1st District), and State Rep. Theresa Mah (2nd District) endorsed the letters, which alleged pollution by several companies in the city.
“Yes, MAT Asphalt is one of those,” said Sigcho-Lopez, “We should not be waiting to address this. We have so many people in our area suffering from asthma and other issues.”
He said, as of mid-April, the mayor and governor have not responded to the letter.
“I know they have a lot of issues they are dealing with,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “We hope they can address this soon.”
Munoz said coronavirus “has underscored the issues with unregulated pollution,” noting the effect on a neighborhood’s quality of life.
Mah said she supports residents opposing MAT Asphalt as well as the broader issues in the letters.
“I firmly stand with the neighbors and had planned to be at the March 23 meeting,” Mah said. “Then everything else happened. I’m really concerned about MAT Asphalt. I live in McKinley Park, and I have an office there.”
MAT Asphalt owner Michael Tadin Jr. said he looks forward to a public hearing.
“I really wanted the meeting to take place,” he said. “I wanted the opportunity to show that we are complying with the EPA standards.”
Tadin said his plant is operating well within legal environmental standards and with new technology far below similar, older plants in the region.
“I want everybody to be healthy,” he said. “We need to get rid of COVID-19 and get the economy running.”
N4EJ’s Moser said, “We don’t want the economy to open without solving this. What good is economic recovery if it shortens your lifespan?”