Chicago Sun-Times

Light­foot should nix Gen­eral Iron’s South­east Side re­lo­ca­tion plans

- Business · Ecology · Chicago · Great Lakes · Illinois · U.S. Environmental Protection Agency · Lori Lightfoot · Lincoln Park · Linkin Park · Lincoln Park · Abraham Lincoln · J.B. Pritzker · Department of Public Health, University of Copenhagen · Environmental Protection · Hegewisch

Chicago’s South­east Side was an in­dus­trial cap­i­tal of the Great Lakes re­gion in the 20th cen­tury — a dis­tinc­tion that fa­mously came with a great cost to its res­i­dents’ health and their en­vi­ron­ment.

So the last thing the South­east Side needs now is a car-shred­ding op­er­a­tion, es­pe­cially one run by the no­to­ri­ous pol­luter Gen­eral Iron. But that’s ex­actly what the area stands to get, thanks to an Illi­nois En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency de­ci­sion last week to grant the com­pany a con­struc­tion per­mit in the East Side neigh­bor­hood.

In our view, Mayor Lori Light­foot’s ad­min­is­tra­tion should step in and put the brakes on Gen­eral Iron’s bid to build the car-shred­ding fa­cil­ity within a clus­ter of work­ing class Latino neigh­bor­hoods that have long suf­fered from di­min­ished air qual­ity, and high rates of asthma and other air­borne ill­ness.

We know that’s a dras­tic step, given that the shred­ding op­er­a­tion brings with it much-needed jobs and other eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity at a time when the city’s pan­demic-rav­aged econ­omy needs it most.

But the res­i­dents’ lives are more im­por­tant.

A move south

De­vel­op­ment pres­sures are chas­ing Gen­eral Iron off its 21-acre North Side site along the Chicago River be­tween Lin­coln Park and Buck­town, not far from the planned $6 bil­lion up­scale Lin­coln Yards me­gapro­ject.

The 100-year-old com­pany, now owned by metal re­cy­cler RMG, wants to ex­pand a fa­cil­ity cur­rently op­er­ated by RMG at 116th and Bur­ley Av­enue and set up shop there.

We might be more in­clined to wel­come the move south — and maybe ar­gue for en­hanced en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions for res­i­dents — if Gen­eral Iron hadn’t been such a lousy neigh­bor up north.

The city shut down the plant when a pair of ex­plo­sions and a fire oc­curred there in a sin­gle morn­ing in May. And city in­spec­tors five times be­tween De­cem­ber 2019 and Jan­uary 2020 cited it for pol­lu­tion vi­o­la­tions.

All that comes on top of years of neigh­bors com­plain­ing of nox­ious smells com­ing from the fa­cil­ity. Gen­eral Iron agreed to fed­eral EPA set­tle­ments in 2006 and 2012 re­gard­ing “fugi­tive dust” es­cap­ing the plant. In 2018, the agency found volatile or­ganic com­pounds from a shred­der on the site ex­ceeded al­low­able lim­its. Gen­eral Iron also failed to in­stall proper air pol­lu­tion con­trols, the EPA said.

“We’re trou­bled by re­ports of con­cerns from North Side res­i­dents over the pub­lic health risks posed by the Gen­eral Iron plant es­pe­cially in light of [Gen­eral Iron’s] de­sire to move into our com­mu­nity,” six South Side state leg­is­la­tors op­pos­ing the move wrote to Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illi­nois EPA last month be­fore the state per­mit was is­sued.

The IEPA ac­knowl­edged the con­cerns, but ap­proved the con­struc­tion per­mit, say­ing en­force­ment and com­pli­ances were be­yond the scope of their de­ci­sion.

“I feel like my voice has been si­lenced,” Os­car Sanchez, who lives near the pro­posed site, told ABC7 Chicago af­ter the IEPA ap­proved the per­mit. “I feel that this is a slap to my face, that this is a slap to our com­mu­nity.”

Enough is enough

Gen­eral Iron and RMG prom­ise to be bet­ter ac­tors. The com­pa­nies also say the planned new fa­cil­ity will have all the proper en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions.

In other words, “Trust us.” But we can’t, given the com­pany’s past — and re­cent past, at that. And any en­vi­ron­men­tal mis­take the com­pany makes com­pounds the se­ri­ous air qual­ity is­sues that are al­ready preva­lent in the area. We don’t think it’s worth the risk.

In a let­ter to the IEPA, South­east Side Ald. Su­san Sad­lowski Garza (10th) said the nearby Hegewisch neigh­bor­hood has suf­fered over the years from high rates of lung can­cer and chronic ob­struc­tive pul­monary dis­ease.

“These can­not be looked at as mere aber­ra­tions but as the sci­en­tific re­al­ity of com­mu­ni­ties which have been con­sis­tently ex­posed to ex­ces­sive lev­els of air pol­lu­tion,” she wrote.

With al­ready more than its share of metal re­cy­clers and sim­i­lar busi­nesses, res­i­dents of the South­east Side have a right to say “enough is enough.”

And Mayor Lori Light­foot can help.

Ball in city’s court

While the state did ap­prove the plant’s con­struc­tion per­mit, city of­fi­cials must give per­mis­sion for the fa­cil­ity to op­er­ate.

Be­fore per­mits are fi­nal, the Chicago De­part­ment of Pub­lic Health also will have to is­sue ap­provals under a suite of or­di­nances reg­u­lat­ing large recycling fa­cil­i­ties.

In the wake of the spring’s Hilco mishap in Lit­tle Vil­lage, here’s a chance for the Light­foot ad­min­is­tra­tion to score an en­vi­ron­men­tal vic­tory by stand­ing with the South­east Side’s most vul­ner­a­ble res­i­dents.

City of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing the de­part­ments of plan­ning and health, could then sit down with Gen­eral Iron and RMG and fig­ure out a proper place for the fa­cil­ity — one that doesn’t ag­gra­vate ex­ist­ing health is­sues in a neigh­bor­hood.

Un­til then, Gen­eral Iron shouldn’t be al­lowed to move wher­ever it wants.

 ?? SUN-TIMES FILES ?? Gen­eral Iron, which has been an en­vi­ron­men­tal nui­sance on the North Side, wants to move to the South­east Side.
SUN-TIMES FILES Gen­eral Iron, which has been an en­vi­ron­men­tal nui­sance on the North Side, wants to move to the South­east Side.

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