Environmental racism complaint against Chicago referred to U.S. prosecutors
In October, a HUD official investigating the city’s role in moving General Iron to the Southeast Side asked the U.S. Justice Department prosecutors to look at Chicago’s zoning practices.
A federal housing official told U.S. prosecutors in Washington last fall that they should investigate Chicago’s zoning and land use practices because he believed there was a likelihood the city violated federal law.
Lon Meltesen, an official with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, referred a complaint from Southeast Side residents who said their civil rights were being violated. As regional director in Chicago of HUD’s Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity office, Meltesen is leading an inquiry, which was triggered by the city’s role in moving the car- and metal-shredding business General Iron from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side.
“It is FHEO’s belief that the investigation will reveal fair housing issues involving DOJ’s zoning and land use authority,” Meltesen wrote in an Oct. 23 letter — obtained by the Sun-Times — to the Justice Department’s chief of Housing and Civil Enforcement.
A HUD spokeswoman confirmed a referral to prosecutors was made, which she said is required for this type of investigation. She declined to comment further. Justice Department representatives declined to comment.
HUD has been investigating complaints from Southeast Side community groups that say their civil rights are being violated under the Fair Housing Act because the Lightfoot Administration helped orchestrate the move of General Iron out of mostly white, affluent Lincoln Park to East Side, which is majority Latino, surrounded by Black communities and already suffers air pollution from many industrial sources.
The Southeast Side neighborhoods “already have among the highest concentrations of air pollution and attendant health outcomes in the city,” Meltesen’s letter to prosecutors said.
General Iron, which has been rebranded Southside Recycling by its owner Reserve Management Group, stopped operations at its longtime home in Lincoln Park at the end of last year. RMG plans to open a new facility at East 116th Street along the Calumet River as soon as it gets an operating permit from the city. The city’s part in helping the business relocate — which began under the administration of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel — is central to the HUD complaint.
A city spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Meltesen, who declined to comment through HUD’s spokeswoman, acknowledged the referral this month in another letter responding to a federal open records request.
That letter was sent to the office of lawyer Victor Henderson, who is representing Southeast Side residents in a separate complaint filed in U.S. federal court in Chicago. Henderson’s clients have said the relocation of the metal-shredding operation violated their civil rights.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency questioned Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Administration for granting a state permit to Reserve Management Group to build the Southeast Side operation.
The agency is investigating whether the Pritzker Administration “discriminated against the predominantly Latino and African American community in southeast Chicago on the basis of race and national origin.” If the state did discriminate, it would be a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the EPA’s own nondiscrimination rules, the agency said in a letter confirming its inquiry.
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.