Protesting what they call a discriminatory move that will exacerbate respiratory health issues in a polluted community, six state legislators representing Chicago’s South Side are asking Gov. J.B. Pritzker to reject metal shredder General Iron’s planned move from Lincoln Park to the East Side.
“Residents of the South Side are disproportionately affected by respiratory issues due to a variety of factors including pollution,” said the letter signed by Chicago Democratic Sens. Robert Peters and Elgie Sims Jr. and Reps. Kambium Buckner, Marcus Evans Jr., Nicholas Smith and Curtis Tarver. “We’re urging you to call for the denial of General Iron’s application for a construction permit in our community.”
The June 24 letter was delivered the day before a decision deadline on an environmental permit that would give General Iron the green light to move to a site at South Burley Avenue and 116th Street along the Calumet River. General Iron needs the construction and air-pollution control permit to build the new facility with its partner Reserve Management Group. Community groups have said a draft permit written by the state is weak and doesn’t protect residents from harmful air pollution. After accepting public comments, the agency is expected to rule on a final permit Thursday.
In their letter, the lawmakers said Pritzker’s Illinois Environmental Protection Agency isn’t living up to its responsibilities to protect residents, especially in low-income and minority communities such as the Latino-majority East Side.
The Illinois EPA has “the duty to write stringent permits that go beyond the minimum required,” the legislators said in their letter. “Furthermore, both Congress and the Illinois Assembly have prohibited IEPA from implementing its duties in ways that discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin.”
Pritzker’s office and the Illinois EPA have said state law limits the power they have to deny or write a permit for General Iron. For instance, numerous citations written by city of Chicago inspectors for violations of pollution and nuisance laws won’t be considered, state officials say.
General Iron’s Lincoln Park operation is currently closed after two explosions in May. The decision in 2018 to move from affluent Lincoln Park to the working-class Latino neighborhood is cited by activists as environmental racism. While much of that criticism has been directed at Mayor Lori Lightfoot and predecessor Rahm Emanuel, the lawmakers urged Pritzker to take a stand.
The Illinois EPA “has broad authority and a duty,” the letter said. Instead, the agency proposed “a permit that would enable the relocation of a massive metal shredding facility from a white, wealthy and further gentrifying community to an environmental justice community.”
The letter adds that Pritzker’s agency is urged to “demonstrate its commitment to protecting the public health of all Illinoisans by preventing further pollution in Black and Brown communities of Chicago’s Southeast Side.”
“The main thing here is about looking out for the community,” Peters said. “You can have a narrow technocratic look at this or you can take a look at these issues in the public arena.”
The governor, he added, can “set an example for the state and for environmental justice.”
General Iron and partner RMG have said that the pollution controls proposed for the facility will be “state of the art.” The “decision to build this shredding operation on the Southeast Side was prompted by political and business realities,” company officials said in a letter to Illinois EPA June 15.
“A narrative has been constructed around this operation being moved from a rich white neighborhood to a lower income neighborhood where a majority of the population comprises people of color. Those facts are not in dispute,” company executives said in their letter. General Iron “was essentially zoned out of business,” they added, a reference to the $6 billion Lincoln Yards development being built around the car and industrial metal shredder’s longtime home at 1909 N. Clifton Ave.
Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza, whose 10th Ward includes the site of the proposed shredding facility, previously encouraged Pritzker to delay a decision on the permit, noting concerns in the community.
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.