Mayor Lori Lightfoot told hunger strikers protesting the relocation of General Iron to the Southeast Side that she wants to work with community members to address concerns about pollution and health but stopped short of agreeing to the protesters’ demand to deny a permit to the metal-shredding operation.
In a letter dated Tuesday, Lightfoot laid out a number of her aspirations and some achievements related to social, racial and health equity but repeated a statement that General Iron owner Reserve Management Group’s application for a city permit is under review. Community members have opposed the facility, saying it will bring more air pollution to an area of the city already burdened by environmental hazards.
Three protesters began a hunger strike almost three weeks ago and since that time the number has grown. They demand that Lightfoot reject the permit that will allow RMG to open a car- and metal-shredding operation at East 116th Street along the Calumet River. Southeast Side residents have said the relocation of General Iron from mostly white, affluent Lincoln Park to the Latino- and Black-majority Southeast Side is environmental racism. Multiple federal government bodies are investigating civil rights complaints related to the city’s part in moving the business, to be rebranded Southside Recycling, to the Southeast Side.
“I have heard your demand and understand that your position, and the position of the broader environmental justice movement, is for a denial of this permit,” Lightfoot wrote. “We are committed to following all pertinent regulations around this permit process.”
Lightfoot promised to incorporate environmental considerations into future planning efforts around the Southeast Side, including remediation funding for contaminated land, and talked about her commitment to equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
The letter wasn’t enough to stop the hunger strikers, who now number more than 10, including Ald. Byron Sigcho Lopez (25th). Sigcho Lopez joined the strike Tuesday and said he would abstain from food “as long as it is needed.”
In a statement, the strikers criticized the mayor’s response.
“After weeks of hunger strike, Mayor Lightfoot refuses to commit to changing policies that are rooted in racism and deny General Iron’s permit,” the statement reads. “The mayor’s letter is evasive to our demand.”
Lightfoot “has the power to stop this hunger strike and deny the permit at any moment,” Sigcho Lopez said in a text.
The hunger strike has drawn support from local, state and federal politicians, including former Gov. Pat Quinn, who helped draft a citizens resolution filed at City Hall Tuesday to urge a denial of the permit.
“This whole environmental justice battle is something we should salute,” Quinn said in an interview. “They’re fighting for clean air and clean water.”
The investigation by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Justice Department into civil rights complaints is putting even greater pressure on the mayor.
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.