Feds zero in on Emanuel administration’s role in General Iron move
The officials are asking for thousands of pages of documents as they broaden their probe into the role the city had in relocating the industrial metal shredder from the North Side to the Southeast Side. The outcome of the investigation could force Chicago to substantially change its practices.
In early May 2018, some of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s top aides were emailing each other about their concern that a pair of University of Illinois at Chicago researchers were about to go public with a study showing the poor air quality around the General Iron metal-shredding facility in Lincoln Park.
Dr. Julie Morita, then the city’s commissioner of public health, was preparing to meet with the researchers. She kept Deputy Mayor Robert Rivkin and Chicago Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman apprised of developments. Morita, in an email heavily redacted by city officials in response to an open-records request, suggested going to UIC’s top brass to intervene.
“You may need to engage the Chancellor if you want this to be stopped,” Morita said in her email, referring to UIC Chancellor Michael Amiridis.
At the time, the city was making plans for the multibillion-dollar Lincoln Yards project and emails showed that General Iron was an obstacle for developer Sterling Bay, which wanted the facility shut down. The metal shredder’s more than 20 acres along the Chicago River in Lincoln Park is next to the Lincoln Yards development.
Last month, federal investigators looking into complaints of discriminatory zoning and land-use practices by the city asked for details about the email thread with Morita and others, the Sun-Times has learned. The officials also are asking for potentially thousands of pages of other documents as they broaden their focus to drill down into the role the city had in relocating a source of pollution, the General Iron metal-shredding business, from the North Side to the Southeast Side.
The request shows U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials, responding to a complaint by Southeast Side community groups, are pressing forward to determine if the city violated the civil rights of Latino and Black residents under a federal fair housing law to help a white community in Lincoln Park where General Iron operated for decades. The outcome of the investigation could force Chicago to substantially change practices, particularly as they relate to locating polluting industrial sources near residential communities of color.
HUD officials recently asked for a large volume of documents, including full unredacted emails and related correspondence between some of Emanuel’s top lieutenants who discussed air testing, relocation and other aspects of General Iron’s Lincoln Park operations at the time the city was working with developers on the massive Lincoln Yards project that would ultimately push out a business deemed a nuisance by its neighbors.
Having helped shut down General Iron in Lincoln Park, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration is now weighing whether to issue a final operating permit for the business to reopen on 116th Street along the Calumet River. The issue is so emotional some Southeast Side residents and supporters are staging a hunger strike in protest.
As part of their civil rights complaint, Southeast Side community groups provided more than 260 pages of emails and other correspondence they obtained through open-records releases to HUD, including the thread over UIC air research.
UIC Chancellor Amiridis said he wasn’t contacted by the city.
“Suppressing research results is antithetical to the mission of our institution and to my own personal values,” Amiridis said in a statement Tuesday. “City officials did not ask me to stop UIC researchers from presenting their findings, and I would have immediately dismissed the idea if they had asked.”
The researchers presented their air study after Morita demanded a meeting with them beforehand. Morita also issued a rebuttal of the air study, which found particulate matter pollution was concentrated close to the General Iron site. The professors said the study was a first step toward determining the potential hazards around the car and metal-shredding operations.
In an interview, Morita said she was concerned about the “integrity of the science.”
“We were concerned the data were incomplete and may be misunderstood” by neighbors, Morita said.
One of the UIC researchers, Victoria Persky, said she felt the city was trying to suppress the research, though she didn’t know why. “It was very strong pressure,” Persky said.
Rivkin didn’t respond to a request for comment, and Reifman referred questions to the city, which declined to comment. Both have left their city positions. Emanuel declined to comment.
Hundreds of city emails examined
In the hundreds of pages of emails submitted to HUD, city officials discussed resident complaints about General Iron, the air study and the site’s relevance to the Lincoln Yards development.
In an email to Reifman, Sterling Bay CEO Andy Gloor expressed frustration, saying that the Labkon family — the longtime owners of General Iron and the property where it’s located — reportedly wanted too much money for their land.
“The city is getting played by [General Iron] and it’s going to blow up in your face if they are not shut down quickly,” Gloor said. “As a resident of Lincoln Park, I get a petition a week and the people are all blaming the mayor.”
Gloor declined to comment.
Emails also show weeks of coordination between city officials and representatives of General Iron and Reserve Management Group just before RMG announced it would acquire the longtime Lincoln Park business and move to the South Side. That deal was closed after the Lightfoot administration signed the agreement with RMG in September 2019.
In recent correspondence with the city, HUD also requested:
• Documents showing communications between the Emanuel and Lightfoot administrations.
• Applications and other documents pertaining to industrial zoning from 2010 to 2020, including those applications that were denied. Also air pollution control permits issued by the city from 2015 to the present.
• Records related to a September 2019 agreement the Lightfoot administration signed with RMG just before it completed its purchase of General Iron. That “term sheet” laid out the path for RMG to move the business to the Southeast Side, including applications for necessary permits and an agreement to vacate Lincoln Park. HUD also wants documents that pertain to the use of such agreements and asks for similar term sheet agreements used for other businesses.
As a recipient of millions of dollars in HUD funding, the city is obligated to abide by federal fair-housing law. So far, HUD has shown no sign that it is retreating from its investigation, which is joined by the Justice Department. In a letter sent to City Hall last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signaled that it is working closely with HUD and suggested that the city seek guidance on permitting from the housing agency, which previously said Lightfoot should not issue the permit until the civil rights investigation is complete.
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.