Steven Joseph, chief executive of the company that bought General Iron last year, didn’t mince words earlier this week when asked what would happen if he fails to get city approval to relocate the controversial metal-shredding operation to the Southeast Side.
“We’ll get the permit,” Joseph said confidently during a tour of the site of an $80 million operation along the Calumet River at East 116th Street.
While he acknowledged later that he “doesn’t take anything for granted,” Joseph said city assurances were made last year that gave his company Reserve Management Group the green light to acquire General Iron in Lincoln Park and begin construction for a new operation on the Southeast Side. A two-page agreement with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Administration gives a timeline that helps Joseph’s company move a decades-old business to the South Side by early 2021.
The move from the mostly white, affluent North Side where the car and metal-shredding operation was cited repeatedly for violations of air pollution and nuisance laws has been called racist as it relocates a polluter to Latino-majority East Side. Despite protests from residents, the agreement signed by the Lightfoot Administration 13 months ago all but sealed the deal with Joseph, his company and General Iron.
It was actually Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Administration that started the process to rezone a former industrial area in Lincoln Park and make way for the multi-billion dollar Lincoln Yards residential development. Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza has said she supports the business in her 10th Ward if there are adequate pollution controls. But it is Lightfoot who will put a bow on the move if, as expected, the city gives Joseph’s company the final permit needed to operate.
‘Significantly far along’
A tour of the Southeast Side site — most of which is not visible from public streets nearby — given to the Sun-Times earlier this week confirms that substantial construction has already taken place in the new location.
“We’re significantly far along,” Joseph said, adding that RMG will meet city expectations for a permit under new rules for operations like his.
Announced in July 2018, the sale of General Iron wasn’t completed until after the city’s top lawyer Mark Flessner signed a “term sheet” with Joseph in September 2019. That agreement puts a clock on General Iron to cease operations in Lincoln Park and transition to its new home where it will operate under a new name. The rebranded Southside Recycling will shred an estimated 1 million tons of junked cars, appliances and other materials each year so it can resell the metal. That process will create tons of air pollution, community activists say.
“The city was seeking a reaffirmation of General Iron’s commitment to ceasing operations by the end of 2020,” a city statement said. “RMG was seeking a reaffirmation of the city’s commitment to reviewing and processing its permits, and otherwise regulating RMG, in a neutral, even-handed and non-arbitrary manner. The term sheet was viewed as an effective vehicle for memorializing these commitments.”
Joseph shook his head during an interview saying he doesn’t understand the fuss over his business. He says his operation will have a mostly enclosed shredder and more pollution safeguards than what’s now in Lincoln Park.
RMG is building out a new operation on almost 25 acres. Many of those acres were already paved over as of this week. Two buildings are constructed, while a weighing station and the shredder are being built. Control equipment will move from the North Side in early 2021 as General Iron stops accepting scrap metal in Lincoln Park after December 31. The South Side operation will be completed by March 31, the agreement says.
RMG still needs the second of two city permits, which is to be the subject of a public hearing that will likely draw protests from South Siders. Last Sunday, dozens of students and teachers from nearby George Washington High School joined other demonstrators in a march through the community.
Critics: Public hearing will be window dressing
But the public hearing may be little more than window dressing that will leave residents even more frustrated, critics say.
Already, one online “town hall” was conducted this summer on the matter that didn’t “seem to be genuine,” said Chuck Stark, a biology teacher at George Washington High School.
Stark worries his students will breathe pollution of the RMG operation, which is less than a mile from both the high school and George Washington Elementary School.
“I can’t see any reason that this is a benefit to anyone on the South Side,” Stark said.
Two federal complaints, a lawsuit and a petition to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, say the move violates residents’ civil rights.
Meleah Geertsma, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the city hasn’t shown it will do anything more than rubber stamp what community organizers fear will be a weak city permit regulating pollution.
“We’ve never gotten any other indication,” said Geertsma, who advises Southeast Side residents fighting the relocation.
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.