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Lightfoot administration asks EPA for guidance on metal-shredder permit

The city wants the federal agency to give details into its inquiry into General Iron’s move to the Southeast Side. EPA says environmental justice is a priority.

A proposal to move a metal shredder to the Southeast Side has prompted multiple federal civil rights investigations.
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Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration is asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for direction on a final permit related to a controversial metal shredding operation proposed for the Southeast Side.

In a letter to a top EPA lawyer in Chicago, the city’s Law Department asked whether a civil rights investigation launched by the federal agency — and targeting actions by the state to allow a polluter to operate in a so-called environmental justice community — may have an impact on a local operating permit sought by Reserve Management Group.

The EPA said it is determining next steps but told the Sun-Times in a statement Thursday that recent executive orders by President Joe Biden emphasize solutions “to address the disproportionate health, environmental, economic and climate impacts of disadvantaged communities.”

“EPA recognizes that there have been longstanding environmental justice issues faced by the surrounding community on the Southeast Side,” the agency said.

RMG is the parent of General Iron, which shut down its longtime operations in Lincoln Park and will be rebranded as Southside Recycling at a new facility being built at East 116th Street along the Calumet River. RMG has a state permit issued by Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration but needs a final city permit to open.

The city’s role in helping RMG move operations to a Latino-majority community on the South Side from mostly white Lincoln Park is central to a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Justice Department.

Community groups and activists staging a hunger strike have put pressure on Lightfoot to deny the permit, though the city has an agreement with RMG. A separate lawsuit also alleges civil rights violations related to the General Iron move.

In January, the EPA said it was reviewing the Pritzker administration’s permit process to determine if the state’s actions violated the civil rights of Southeast Side residents who will be on the receiving end of the relocated car and metal-shredding operation.

In a letter sent Wednesday from Chicago Deputy Corporation Counsel John Hendricks, the city asks EPA to confirm that it is looking into the state permit, which regulates air pollution; requests a timeline for the agency’s investigation; and asks if the agency will request that the city suspend its permitting process for the metal shredder.

“It is crucial that the outcome of the City’s permitting process be based on a legitimate [state] authorization,” the letter said.

The letter also states that the city wants to “offer our full support and cooperation” to the EPA and adds that it wants to ensure that its permit review “is not in conflict with any USEPA review.”

The Pritzker Administration “continues to work with the U.S. EPA in resolving the pending complaint,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.

A city spokeswoman declined to comment beyond what was stated in the letter.

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