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General Iron’s city violations won’t be a factor in whether it gets new permit, state says

The Illinois EPA says it can’t consider the metal shredder’s citations in Lincoln Park when determining whether it can operate on the Southeast Side.

General Iron needs a construction permit so it can move from its Lincoln Park location to the Southeast Side. | Annie Costabile/Sun-Times
General Iron needs a construction permit so it can move from its Lincoln Park location to the Southeast Side.
Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

Since December, industrial metal shredder General Iron has been cited by the city of Chicago for almost three dozen violations of local law, including numerous cases of air pollution.

But as Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration considers granting a construction permit that will help General Iron move its operations from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side, state officials aren’t taking those citations into consideration.

The permit being considered by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency would give a green light to the construction of the new facility and any required air pollution controls. Southeast Side community groups and environmental lawyers representing them say a draft permit written by regulators for the proposed Southeast Side operation is weak and doesn’t take into consideration the facility’s track record of problems on the North Side.

In March, one city inspector wrote that General Iron was a “constant health hazard” and described a “pungent odor of sweet, burning metal that burns my nostrils and makes it uncomfortable for me to breathe in.”

On May 18, the company was fined $6,000 by the city after two explosions at its 1909 Clifton Avenue location, which is still closed. As part of a partnership with Reserve Management Group, General Iron plans to move to South Burley Avenue and 116th Street along the Calumet River. Lincoln Park residents have called for the facility to never reopen.

“It is unconscionable for the state to be silent or to side in the best interest of these industries who are bad actors,” said Olga Bautista, a Southeast Side community organizer.

That’s not how the Pritzker administration sees it. Officials say state law prohibits them from considering local pollution violations when deciding whether to issue a permit. Many of the city violations have yet to be adjudicated.

“While we are mindful of the situation with [General Iron], we also must follow the law,” said Illinois EPA spokeswoman Kim Biggs. “An applicant’s past or ongoing compliance issues should be addressed through the agency’s compliance and enforcement programs as permitting is no substitute for enforcement.”

The Illinois EPA is accepting public comments related to the permit through Monday. Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) recently vowed to oppose General Iron’s move to her ward.

Meleah Geertsma, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the draft permit, as written so far, is a “piece of junk” that doesn’t protect the community. For one, it doesn’t provide enough enclosure to contain emissions and airborne contaminants, like “auto fluff,” residue created when cars are shredded. Pritzker’s EPA, she said, is taking an overly narrow interpretation of the law and not exercising its authority.

Separately, the city recently finalized rules for auto and metal shredders like General Iron, which call themselves recyclers, that are much stricter than what the Illinois EPA draft permit proposes. A company spokesman says there are plenty of safeguards built into the design of the operation.

“We are eager for the final permit to be issued so we can proceed with construction under the terms of the agreement reached with the city last fall,” said Randall Samborn, a spokesman for General Iron and RMG. “We have designed and will operate a facility that not only is inherently green as a recycler but also meets and exceeds all environmental laws.”

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.