City delays permit for General Iron, asks for data on cumulative impact of pollution from related businesses

The city said its “review process has identified concerns and questions related to the relationship between” multiple businesses operated by the metal shredder’s new owner along the Calumet River.

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Protesters rallied outside City Hall last month to oppose the relocation of the General Iron metal shredding operation to the Southeast Side.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration is seeking more information about the cumulative air pollution around a proposed scrap-metal shredding operation on the Southeast Side, an inquiry that delays the city’s permitting for the controversial business.

The city has been reviewing an operating permit application from Reserve Management Group, which acquired Lincoln Park-based General Iron in 2019. The company has been building a new facility at East 116th Street along the Calumet River to relocate General Iron, as the rebranded Southside Recycling, next to RMG’s existing businesses. 

In a letter Monday, a city environmental official told RMG that it requires more information “to properly assess the relationship between and the potential cumulative impact of all Reserve Management Group operations” in the area. Air pollution throughout the Southeast Side is among the worst in the city.

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The “review process has identified concerns and questions related to the relationship between Southside Recycling and other adjacent, co-owned and functionally integrated business entities,” city Environmental Engineer Renante Marante wrote. “The interaction of these existing operations together with the new capabilities proposed by Southside Recycling warrant further consideration in order to adequately assess the cumulative impact of the proposed recycling operations.”

“Southside Recycling is building a modern new facility that will operate alongside four other RMG companies,” the company said in a statement also citing its own air emissions modeling in its defense. 

The permit has been at the center of a highly emotional protest from residents, including a month-long hunger strike. Lightfoot also is feeling heat from federal officials who have launched a civil rights investigation into the city’s zoning and land-use practices. On Friday, a federal official reiterated to the city that Lightfoot should not issue the permit until the civil rights investigation is complete.

Under a September 2019 agreement with the Lightfoot Administration, General Iron agreed to move from mostly white, wealthy Lincoln Park to Latino and Black-majority Southeast Side. That agreement is at the center of a fair housing civil rights complaint to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

The city has asked to meet with RMG officials this week to discuss what information is needed for review of the operating permit. In the letter, Marante said the city’s review has included input from air-modeling experts and public comments. 

The other businesses in the area cited by the city as potentially contributing to air pollution include Reserve Marine Terminals, South Shore Recycling, Napuck Salvage of Waupaca and Regency Technologies. 

The city has been reviewing the permit application and was expected to soon either issue a draft version or deny the application. Some groups have been stepping up pressure on the mayor.

The “operations would endanger the health and safety of Southeast Side residents, including increasing the disparate burdens this community already bears,” a coalition of community members and hunger strikers said in a statement. “We are relieved that the City is not charging forward to issue a draft permit.” 

In recent weeks, doctors and other health professionals have urged Lightfoot to reject the permit application, saying approving it would be contradicting her own statements about environmental racism and future planning. Last summer, the city put out an air quality report and map showing areas of the city overburdened with pollution, including the Southeast Side.

Meanwhile, a HUD official repeated last week that the agency is asking the city to not issue RMG a permit until it has completed its investigation. The letter from Kimberly Nevels, a HUD official in Chicago, took issue with a city lawyer’s comments to a federal judge in a separate but related civil rights court hearing last week that “suggested that there was no pending request for the City to delay the permit’s issuance.” 

“Nothing,” Nevels said, “has led to any change in HUD’s ongoing request that the City refrain from issuing any further permits in this matter.” 

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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