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Welcoming a federal probe of General Iron, a scrap metal plant that doesn’t belong on the Southeast Side

We’re glad to see the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepping in to investigate the permitting of a South Deering facility.

A protester attends a rally demanding Mayor Lori Lightfoot deny the final permit that will allow General Iron to move from Lincoln Park, a mostly white neighborhood, to the Southeast Side, which has a mostly Latino population.
A protester attends a rally demanding Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot to deny the final permit that will allow General Iron to move from Lincoln Park, a mostly white neighborhood, to the Southeast Side, which has a mostly Latino population, at 3325 W. Wrightwood Ave. near Lightfoot’s home in Logan Square, Saturday afternoon, Nov. 14, 2020. General Iron’s metal shredding facility in Lincoln Park has received several citations for pollution, nuisance law violations and explosions. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

We have never liked the idea of General Iron relocating its metal scrapping operations to the Southeast Side.

The state approved relocating the long time North Side environmental headache from predominately white and well-off Lincoln Park to South Deering, a working class Latino and Black community historically overburdened with toxic industries — and the health problems that come as a result.

So we’re glad to see the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepping in, on civil rights grounds, to investigate the state’s decision. The EPA, according to a statement, will take up the matter as part of its overall mission “to address the disproportionate health, environmental, economic and climate impacts of disadvantaged communities.”

Residents of the Southeast Side have been aggressively protesting the relocation, some even engaging in a hunger strike. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration could stop the move in its tracks by not granting a necessary city permit, but officials so far seem intent on overriding the community’s valid concerns and allowing the facility.

Still, the Lightfoot administration is concerned enough about the civil rights investigation that it has asked the EPA whether the agency’s review would have an adverse affect on the city’s permitting process for the metal shredding operation.

The EPA didn’t directly answer the city’s query, but said it “recognizes that there have been longstanding environmental justice issues faced by the surrounding community on the Southeast Side.”

Frankly, we think this is the stance the Lightfoot administration should have taken all along. But since it has failed to do so, we’re glad the feds are in the mix and seeking answers.

Out of control

In an act of hubris, political leverage or a conviction they’d win out in the end, General Iron owner Reserve Management Group last year started building the South Deering facility even though the city permit has not been granted. The company even announced a new name for the operation: Southside Recycling.

For its part, RMG says the new plant at 116th and the Calumet River wouldn’t be the problem polluter that made its North Side predecessor so detested. But nearby residents — many of who have long suffered from diminished air quality, and high rates of asthma and other airborne illness as a legacy of the area’s concentration of industrial facilities — are rightfully skeptical.

“Our community has suffered enough abuse,” one of the six hunger strikers, Yesenia Chavez, an Olive-Harvey College student, said at a recent news conference. “We deserve better, as do those other communities that have suffered environmental abuse, as well around the City of Chicago.”

Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) wants the city to hold off issuing a permit until the federal investigation ends. Garza, whose ward would house the facility, also expressed sympathy for the hunger strikers. That would seem like the least the city could do.

“I commend these people,” Garza told the Sun-Times. “They feel like they’re not being heard. No one should have to go on a hunger strike to get people to listen. That’s the bottom line. This has gotten out of control.”

In a statement as non-committal as they come, the city said the hunger strike “is worrisome and underscores our commitment to deepen our coordination with the community.”

That the hunger strikers said they haven't heard from the city beyond that statement is telling.

An important call

The EPA hopes to determine whether Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration violated the civil rights of Southeast Side residents when it gave the go-ahead last year to move the metal scrapping operation to a community already overburdened with potentially toxic industries.

In a letter sent to the EPA in the last week by the city's law department, Deputy Corporation Counsel John Hendricks wrote that it is “crucial that the outcome of the City’s permitting process be based on a legitimate [state] authorization.”

Rather than hide behind the possibility that the feds will find that the state is guilty of civil rights violations, City Hall should find the courage to come to its own decision about the metal shredding plant.

And that should mean standing with the community and denying the permit. Granted, the Lightfoot administration faces a tough call. But a neighborhood’s health is on line.

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