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Judge refuses to block permit for General Iron’s move, says residents did not show proof of racial discrimination

U.S. District Court Judge Mary Rowland issued her ruling in a civil rights lawsuit that argued the city sought to move a polluting nuisance from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side.

A protester attends a rally demanding Mayor Lori Lightfoot deny the final permit that will allow General Iron to move from Lincoln Park, a mostly white neighborhood, to the Southeast Side, which has a mostly Latino population.
A protester attends a rally demanding Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot to deny the final permit that will allow a renamed General Iron to open the Southeast Side.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A federal judge said Wednesday that she will not prevent the city from issuing a final permit for the rebranded General Iron car-shredding operation on the Southeast Side because residents had not shown they can prove racial discrimination was involved in moving the business from Lincoln Park.

U.S. District Court Judge Mary Rowland issued her ruling in a civil rights lawsuit brought by two Southeast Side residents and a pastor who argued the city sought to move a polluting nuisance from mostly white, wealthy Lincoln Park to a Latino-majority area at East 116th Street and South Burley Avenue. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Administration hasn’t actually made a final decision yet, but is expected to issue a draft permit or rejection soon.

The residents sought an injunction to stop issuance of the permit but Rowland wrote they “have not shown a discriminatory purpose behind the move of the facility from Lincoln Park to South Burley.”

Lawyers for the plaintiffs, the Rev. Richard Martinez, Jocelyn Rangel and Roni-Nicole Facen, argued that city actions pointed to a concerted effort to move General Iron, now rebranded Southside Recycling, out of Lincoln Park to make way for the multi-billion dollar Lincoln Yards residential and commercial development that benefits that area while sending a polluter to a community of color.

The residents had argued that a two-page “term sheet” between the city and representatives of the business determining a timetable to move General Iron from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side pointed to a coordinated effort with the city. In a hearing last month, the judge asked city lawyers if they could point to other agreements like the one signed in September 2019 but they were not aware of any. The judge noted the term sheet “seemed admittedly unusual,” but it did not guarantee a permit would be granted and the plaintiffs didn’t prove that there was a racial bias.

“While it is true that the Term Sheet is unusual, potentially borne out of a desire to make the area surrounding the Lincoln Yards development even more desirable, it does not show that a racially discriminatory purpose motivated the decision to relocate the facility to the southeast side,” Rowland wrote.

The Sun-Times reported this week that emails showed a high-level of coordination between city officials and General Iron representatives related to the move. City officials say the activity is not unusual.

Rowland also said the residents didn’t meet a “high standard” for proving that the metal-shredding operation would be a nuisance to their community.

“Their contention that the ‘prospective nuisance is reasonably likely to occur,’” the judge wrote, “does not meet the high standard.”

A review of the city’s zoning board hearing to determine a zoning variance at the site also did not point to discrimination, the judge said.

“While the fight won’t continue in this courtroom, it won’t stop because this injustice cannot stand,” Victor Henderson, lawyer for the residents, said in a statement.

Federal housing authorities are separately investigating another civil rights complaint about the metal shredder brought by community groups.

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