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Ald. Garza pushes Pritzker to delay General Iron’s move to Southeast Side

“Emissions on the Southeast Side only serve to further the environmental injustice, all the more glaring as this facility considers moving from the wealthy and overwhelmingly white North Side to the working-class and majority Latinx South East Side,” she said in a letter.

Trucks dump metal scraps into a pile at General Iron in Lincoln Park. | Annie Costabile/Sun-Times
Trucks dump metal scraps into a pile at General Iron in Lincoln Park. | Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

General Iron’s move to the Southeast Side would cause more health problems for residents in a community that already suffers from heavy air pollution, Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza said in a letter to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s environmental office.

“As a lifelong resident of the East Side neighborhood where this facility is proposed, I have dealt with issues of environmental pollution long before I was elected alderwoman,” Garza said in her letter to Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Director John Kim. “As a school counselor, I dealt with countless students who suffered asthma and whose parents suffered a variety of chronic lung problems.”

In the letter sent late last week, Garza asked the Pritzker administration to delay issuing a permit allowing General Iron to build a new facility and air pollution controls when it moves from its longtime home in Lincoln Park. General Iron, she wrote, “is requesting approval to further burden our environmental justice community.” She wants final decisions on the permit to be delayed until after an “in-person community meeting can safely take place” so residents can “meaningfully weigh in.”

Garza hasn’t opposed the General Iron facility, and, in fact, seemed to initially embrace it. But in her letter to state EPA officials and in a Facebook post Monday, the alderman said that explosions at the company’s Lincoln Park facility and multiple environmental citations from the city of Chicago concern her. “Concerns are only heightened by the recent catastrophic explosion,” she said in her letter.

Monday is the final day that Illinois EPA is accepting public comments as it considers issuing a permit, which General Iron needs to construct the new site with its partner Reserve Management Group. Community and environmental groups have said that a draft permit written by Pritzker’s environmental enforcers does not protect the community from added air pollution.

“Illinois EPA will fully consider and respond to all significant public comments submitted as part of the public comment period and may make changes to the permit based upon those comments,” Illinois EPA spokeswoman Kim Biggs said. “We have received Ald. Garza’s letter, and it’s being reviewed along with other comments.”

In their own letter to Illinois EPA, two executives at RMG defended their pollution controls and said their business, which processes and reuses metals, keeps materials out of landfills. General Iron was “essentially zoned out of business” in Lincoln Park, they added, a reference to the planned upscale Lincoln Yards development. “RMG’s decision to build this shredding operation on the Southeast Side site was prompted by political and business realities,” they wrote.

Also Monday, a group of community, environmental and social justice activists called on Mayor Lori Lightfoot to stop General Iron’s move and requested that similar type of metal-shredding operations shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We believe and we demand that our community is given the same considerations as the affluent North Side,” said Olga Bautista, a Southeast Side community organizer.

Bautista said a petition with more than 5,500 signatures and comments from residents opposed to General Iron was sent to Lightfoot’s office Monday.

Community groups have been asking Garza to oppose the project, which she agreed to do publicly in recent weeks. They’ve also asked the Pritzker administration to consider almost three dozen city violations alleged against General Iron since December.

At a press conference on Zoom Monday, Chuck Stark, a science teacher at George Washington High School, said that he worries about the health of his students. Stark said he’s witnessed students with severe asthma struggling to breathe outside the school.

“It’s very disrespectful to people of the East Side and to the students,” Stark said, adding “how can we allow another company to come to the East Side and allow it to release these” pollutants into the air?

In her letter to Illinois EPA, Garza said the most current city data for asthma-related emergency room visits by children show that the Southeast Side ZIP code of 60617 had a rate more than 40% higher than the rate citywide. The nearby Hegewisch neighborhood, she said, suffered 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.

“Additional emissions on the Southeast Side only serve to further the environmental injustice, all the more glaring as this facility considers moving from the wealthy and overwhelmingly white North Side to the working-class and majority Latinx South East Side,” she added.

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