Activists vow hunger strike to protest General Iron move to Southeast Side

A George Washington High School teacher and two others demand that the city deny an operating permit for car shredder along the Calumet River.

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A rebranded and relocated General Iron aims to operate along the Calumet River on the Southeast Side.

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A teacher and a pair of community activists on the Southeast Side are staging a hunger strike, asking the city to deny a permit for the relocated General Iron car-shredding facility.

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Calling the city-assisted move environmental racism, the three — Chuck Stark, a science teacher at George Washington High School; Oscar Sanchez, cofounder of Southeast Side Youth Coalition; and Breanna Bertacchi, a member of United Neighbors of the 10th Ward — said beginning Thursday they will forgo eating until the city denies an application for a permit to operate.

All three have been outspoken critics of the plan to open a scrap metal-shredding operation at East 116th Street along the Calumet River. The city has said it is reviewing the permit application as well as public comments recently submitted.

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Oscar Sanchez

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“We’re in it because we have no other choice,” Sanchez said. “This is our community and we want to be protective of it.”

On a Zoom call, Stark invited others to join the three hunger strikers, who will be carrying out their protests from their individual homes. Stark said he will continue to teach class remotely from his home.

Updates will be posted on social media, the organizers said.

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Chuck Stark

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So far, Mayor Lori Lighftoot and her staff have shown no indication that they will deny the scrap-metal operation from opening. The protesters called out Lightfoot and Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s public health commissioner. The Chicago Department of Public Health ultimately will make the decision whether to approve the permit.

The closure of General Iron at its longtime Lincoln Park home and a relocation of the metal-shredding business to the Southeast Side has prompted numerous accusations of environmental racism and is the subject of federal investigations into whether South Side residents’ civil rights are being violated.

The chief executive at Reserve Management Group, owner of the rebranded business Southside Recyling, has said he expects to get an operating permit from the city.

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Breanna Bertacchi

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RMG also paid $18,000 last year to settle a number of citations issued by the city for alleged violations of pollution and nuisance laws.

“The news of the hunger strike is worrisome and underscores our commitment to deepen our coordination with the community and key stakeholders to continue our work to protect our constituents from pollution and ensure safe and environmentally sustainable operations,” the city’s health department said in an emailed statement, adding that it “wants to hear from stakeholders, and especially area residents, about their concerns as part of our permitting process.”

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

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