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Duckworth, Durbin ask feds to test air at relocated General Iron site

The federal lawmakers stressed the need for urgency after meeting with hunger strikers opposed to the project.

A car and metal shredding facility being built at East 116th Street along the Calumet River on the Southeast Side was far along in October.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

After meeting with several hunger strikers, U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin are asking federal health officials to test the air for metals and harmful contaminants around the Southeast Side industrial site where the relocated General Iron car shredder is being built.

Duckworth and Durbin, joined by U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly who represents the area, said in a letter that there is “an urgent need” to determine whether the new facility, rebranded Southside Recycling, poses a public health threat in an area already suffering from poor air quality and whether measures can be taken to mitigate additional pollution.

The letter, dated Feb. 18 and sent to an official with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said swift action was needed as Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration is considering granting a final operating permit to the facility.

The new facility is being built next to two existing scrap-metal and commodity transport operations owned by Reserve Management Group, which bought General Iron in 2019.

“It is critical that local officials have a clear, independent and expert evaluation of the existing public health hazard posed by these facilities and the potential to increase or lower public health hazard risks,” the lawmakers said in their letter.

Jade Mazon, one of four hunger strikers who met with the senators over a video conference call Thursday, said the group also asked the lawmakers to talk to Lightfoot on their behalf.

“Ultimately, she has the power to deny this permit. What is she waiting for?” asked Mazon, who on Friday was on her 10th day of not eating.

So far, Lightfoot has not met with any of the hunger strikers, now numbering at least 10.

“It scares me that people are not eating, but this is how serious they take it,” Kelly said in an interview. Before the hunger strike, Kelly said she was concerned about the location of the new facility because of all the existing polluting industry nearby.

The hunger strike started Feb. 4 with three protesters but has grown in number since then.

“There will continually be a group of hunger strikers involved,” said Chuck Stark, one of the original three protesters. “We have a pretty strong sense of urgency. Our frustration levels are high.”

Stark is continuing to teach science at George Washington High School, which is close to the proposed car-shredding operation proposed for East 116th Street along the Calumet River. Stark, who didn’t meet with the senators, said he has continued teaching even as he’s beginning to lose muscle mass from more than two weeks without eating.

In a letter dated Wednesday, Lightfoot’s law department asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for guidance because the federal agency has launched a civil rights investigation into Gov. J.B. Pritzker administration’s issuance of a state air permit for the RMG operation.

In a statement, RMG pointed to the state permit and “extensive air dispersion modeling” the company said it did at the request of the state.

“The modeling demonstrated that the cumulative air impact will not exceed established standards,” RMG said in its statement. “Risk levels for metals, along with other air quality standards, and the predicted concentrations were well below identified limits.”

In addition to the EPA investigation, the city is named in two civil rights complaints. One is filed in federal court in Chicago, and the other is an investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Justice Department.

The Lightfoot administration’s role in helping RMG shut down its longtime site in mostly white, affluent Lincoln Park and open a new metal-shredding operation on the Latino and Black majority South Side is at the heart of those federal inquiries.

“We’re hoping all these investigations are complete before any permit is granted,” Kelly said.

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