General Iron gets state OK to open on Southeast Side

Community groups and local politicians opposed the metal-shredder’s plan to move from Lincoln Park to the majority Latino neighborhood.

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General Iron was given the OK by state regulators to move to 11600 S. Burley Ave. on the Southeast Side.

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General Iron will be allowed to build its new car-shredding operation on the Southeast Side, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration ruled Thursday, despite warnings from residents and local politicians about the health risk from added pollution in the Latino-majority community.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency said it approved the construction and air pollution control permit for General Iron to move from Lincoln Park to the East Side neighborhood because the company met the agency’s guidelines for approval, though some added requirements were put in the permit to reduce emissions from the facility.

“The agency must act on substantive issues within its express statutory and regulatory authority, not public opposition or favor for projects,” Illinois EPA said in an accompanying document with the permit. “That a project is located in one place or another, or is moving from one place to another, is properly the realm of zoning and land-use decision making. To this end, the city of Chicago made clear decisions.”

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The state’s decision comes as community organizers, environmental groups and Chicago politicians implored Pritzker and his environmental agency to deny a construction permit to the business because of a history of pollution violations and because of the potential health impacts on a community that already suffers high rates of asthma and other health problems. Residents and elected officials have called the decision to allow the operation to move from Lincoln Park to the Latino-majority East Side environmental racism.

“While the city is improving and investing ... we get the garbage,” said community activist Gina Ramirez.

The state agency responded to those charges in its document, saying “the Illinois EPA strongly rejects any insinuation that racism played any role in the review of this permit application. The agency’s review was performed strictly according to relevant legal and technical requirements.”

In a separate statement, a Pritzker spokeswoman said the governor would work with legislators to strengthen the state’s authority on environmental permits.

General Iron has said it will have adequate air pollution controls but environmental lawyers working with activists disagreed and called a draft permit offered earlier by the Illinois EPA extremely weak in a heavily industrial area that was formerly home to multiple steel makers. On Thursday, the agency said it heard the criticism and strengthened pollution control requirements, including installation of air monitoring devices and limits on emissions and hours of operation.

There was a push from Chicago politicians to deny the permit or delay a decision. On Wednesday, six South Side lawmakers wrote a letter to the governor and to Illinois EPA urging denial of the permit because it would add pollution to the area’s already poor air quality.

The community groups also argued that the Pritzker administration should examine more than 30 pollution and nuisance citations against General Iron from the city of Chicago just since December. Illinois EPA officials said they would not consider those violations in making their decision.

The Pritzker spokeswoman said in the statement that the agency’s “hands were tied” because of legal limitations. “There is a broader regulatory problem that most severely impacts the health and safety of low-income communities, especially those of color,” she said. “The Environmental Protection Act needs to be modernized, including consideration for the concentration of emitting sources in environmental justice communities.”

General Iron said it had little choice in leaving its longtime home on the North Side as the area around the 1909 N. Clifton Avenue site is being transformed by the $6 billion Lincoln Yards development. In 2018, General Iron announced a merger with Reserve Management Group (RMG) that would move the metal-shredding operation to South Burley Avenue and 116th Street along the Calumet River. Last year, RMG completed its acquisition of the business and most of General Iron’s assets.

“We are looking forward to commencing operations in early 2021 with the most technologically advanced facility available,” RMG said in a statement. “The permit imposes strict conditions that will ensure we keep our commitment to respect and protect air quality and public health.”

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

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