Lightfoot should nix General Iron’s Southeast Side relocation plans

Yes, it’s a drastic step. But residents’ lives are more important. And there has to be a better site somewhere, with more environmental protections in place.

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General Iron, which has been an environmental nuisance on the North Side, wants to move to the Southeast Side


Chicago’s Southeast Side was an industrial capital of the Great Lakes region in the 20th century — a distinction that famously came with a great cost to its residents’ health and their environment.

So the last thing the Southeast Side needs now is a car-shredding operation, especially one run by the notorious polluter General Iron. But that’s exactly what the area stands to get, thanks to an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency decision last week to grant the company a construction permit in the East Side neighborhood.

In our view, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration should step in and put the brakes on General Iron’s bid to build the car-shredding facility within a cluster of working class Latino neighborhoods that have long suffered from diminished air quality, and high rates of asthma and other airborne illness.

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We know that’s a drastic step, given that the shredding operation brings with it much-needed jobs and other economic activity at a time when the city’s pandemic-ravaged economy needs it most.

But the residents’ lives are more important.

We might be more inclined to welcome the move south if General Iron hadn’t been such a lousy neighbor up north.

A move south

Development pressures are chasing General Iron off its 21-acre North Side site along the Chicago River between Lincoln Park and Bucktown, not far from the planned $6 billion upscale Lincoln Yards megaproject.

The 100-year-old company, now owned by metal recycler RMG, wants to expand a facility currently operated by RMG at 116th and Burley Avenue and set up shop there.

We might be more inclined to welcome the move south — and maybe argue for enhanced environmental protections for residents — if General Iron hadn’t been such a lousy neighbor up north.

The city shut down the plant when a pair of explosions and a fire occurred there in a single morning in May. And city inspectors five times between December 2019 and January 2020 cited it for pollution violations.

All that comes on top of years of neighbors complaining of noxious smells coming from the facility. General Iron agreed to federal EPA settlements in 2006 and 2012 regarding “fugitive dust” escaping the plant. In 2018, the agency found volatile organic compounds from a shredder on the site exceeded allowable limits. General Iron also failed to install proper air pollution controls, the EPA said.

“We’re troubled by reports of concerns from North Side residents over the public health risks posed by the General Iron plant especially in light of [General Iron’s] desire to move into our community,” six South Side state legislators opposing the move wrote to Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois EPA last month before the state permit was issued.

The IEPA acknowledged the concerns, but approved the construction permit, saying enforcement and compliances were beyond the scope of their decision.

“I feel like my voice has been silenced,” Oscar Sanchez, who lives near the proposed site, told ABC7 Chicago after the IEPA approved the permit. “I feel that this is a slap to my face, that this is a slap to our community.”

Enough is enough

General Iron and RMG promise to be better actors. The companies also say the planned new facility will have all the proper environmental protections.

In other words, “Trust us.”

But we can’t, given the company’s past — and recent past, at that. And any environmental mistake the company makes compounds the serious air quality issues that are already prevalent in the area. We don’t think it’s worth the risk.

In a letter to the IEPA, Southest Side Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) said the nearby Hegewisch neighborhood has suffered over the years 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.

With already more than its share of metal recyclers and similar businesses, residents of the Southeast Side have a right to say “enough is enough.”

And Mayor Lori Lightfoot can help.

Ball in city’s court

While the state did approve the plant’s construction permit, city officials must give permission for the facility to operate.

Before permits are final, the Chicago Department of Public Health also will have to issue approvals under a suite of ordinances regulating large recycling facilities.

In the wake of the spring’s Hilco mishap in Little Village, here’s chance for the Lightfoot administration to score an environmental victory by standing with the Southeast Side’s most vulnerable residents.

City officials, including the departments of planning and health, could then sit down with General Iron and RMG and figure out a proper place for the facility — one that doesn’t aggravate existing health issues in a neighborhood.

Until then, General Iron shouldn’t be allowed to move wherever it wants.

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