General Iron challenges pollution controls in state permit

“It’s deeply disturbing,” says a lawyer for Southeast Side community groups. Meanwhile, the city has allowed the firm to resume operations at its existing facility in Lincoln Park, which had been closed after two explosions in May.

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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’s owner is challenging pollution control requirements from a recently issued state permit that is allowing the metal shredder to build a new operation on the Southeast Side.

The move follows protests by residents who don’t want the company to relocate to their neighborhood from the facility’s longtime home in Lincoln Park. The company is challenging the state’s lawful ability to require certain robust air pollution testing and monitoring and other requirements.

The company argued several conditions placed on it are “contrary to law, infeasible and arbitrary and capricious.” 

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s environmental regulators issued a construction permit with pollution controls in June that community groups said was too weak to adequately protect residents in an area of the city that already suffers from poor air quality. 

“It’s deeply disturbing,” said Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law who is representing Southeast Side community groups. “RMG has been pronouncing that it intends to be a great neighbor and instead it’s looking to weaken the already not-stringent permit plan.”

On July 30, General Iron filed an appeal with a state panel, the Illinois Pollution Control Board, that rules on disputes over environmental law. Specifically, Reserve Management Group, General Iron’s parent company, wants to strike the state’s oversight of a dust containment plan that is now part of the state permit. It also wants to strike requirements for air testing, arguing that it is being subject to standards for “major” sources of pollution as defined by federal law. 

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency “is overstepping its authority,” the company said in its petition.

It calls wording on one safety requirement ambiguous and wants clarification. The control at issue was added to car-shredding equipment following two explosions in Lincoln Park in May. That feature is allowing the company to resume operations at its Lincoln Park location, where it will continue to shred cars and scrap metal until it moves to the Southeast Side. 

Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza, whose 10th Ward will house the new General Iron operation, “is concerned that this means [the company] does not believe they can operate safely and are trying to avoid any oversight of particulate emissions,” said Garza policy adviser John Heroff. “We are still digesting what this appeal means and waiting to see how we can respond as a city.”

Jordan Troy, a spokeswoman for Mayor Lori Lightfoot, said the city is waiting for Reserve Management Group to file for separate city permits that will allow the company to operate at its new location and declined to comment on the state permit.

In a statement, Reserve Management Group said it “is simply exercising its rights to ensure that the permit language is clear and unambiguous, as well as to be treated equally with any other minor source of emissions.”

Illinois EPA spokeswoman Kim Biggs said Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office was asked to represent the agency in the matter and deferred comment. A Raoul spokeswoman declined to comment.

The Pollution Control Board is scheduled to meet Thursday when it could vote on whether to accept the petition. If the board accepts the appeal, the matter will be assigned to a hearing officer and could take about four months to decide.

The city’s approval of General Iron’s reopening in Lincoln Park came Friday, and operations could resume as soon as Saturday. In a letter to Reserve Management Group, the city’s Corporation Counsel Mark Flessner said the company met its legal obligations to show safeguards were in place to prevent another accident — but, he wrote, “I wish to make very clear that the city will be closely monitoring the facility.”

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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