With a nudge from the feds, Lightfoot takes a new look at General Iron and environmental justice

The mayor could have led on this issue from the start. It’s not too late.

SHARE With a nudge from the feds, Lightfoot takes a new look at General Iron and environmental justice

Nelly Martinez attends a November 2020 protest to demand Chicago 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.

Pat Nabong | Sun-Times file

It’s mystifying to us why Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who campaigned on a promise to treat all neighborhoods with fairness and equity, would even consider allowing known polluter General Iron to set up shop on the Southeast Side.

But after community protests, a hunger strike and intervention by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the mayor is now asking a question she could have posed from jump: Is a metal scrapping facility needed in an area of the city already overburdened with a host of environmental issues?

Lightfoot announced last week that the city’s health department will explore whether the cumulative impact of pollution in an area can be considered a factor in whether to approve an industrial operation moving to a community — particularly neighborhoods of color that are already heavily impacted.

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A “cumulative impact” city ordinance could come out of this, possibly by the end of the year, Lightfoot said.

That’s a good sign of a better city approach to General Iron, though we’ll have to wait on the particulars as the new law comes together.

Ordinance to protect ‘vulnerable communities’

The proposed ordinance would be based on laws already on the books in Minneapolis, Los Angeles and other cities where Black and Brown communities have been overly impacted by industrial pollution.

A group of environmental and social activists in New Jersey is using that state’s cumulative impact law in an attempt to stop the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission from building a fracked-gas power plant at a sewage processing facility in The Ironbound, a working-class and immigrant Newark neighborhood.

“Anything that uses fracked gas should be scrapped, full stop,” Newark Environmental Commission Co-Chair Cynthia Mellon said in a statement last week. “Our pollution-burdened city and neighborhoods are already at the limit of what human health can withstand.”

The Chicago ordinance “would require an assessment of the additional environmental impact of an industrial business operation on the surrounding community when reviewing a permit application,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “We are also exploring additional policy steps the city can take to protect our most vulnerable communities from pollution as this ordinance is being developed.”

This proposed new measures come on the heels of Lightfoot’s decision earlier this month to halt the permit approval process to allow General Iron to operate a new facility, built on a 178 acres at 116th and Burley, along the Calumet River in the South Deering community.

General Iron is moving from its long-time home at 1909 N. Clifton Ave., on the western edge of Lincoln Park.

“If General Iron isn’t wanted in a rich white neighborhood, why is it wanted in a poor Brown community?” Evan St. Germaine, a member of the Chi-Nations Youth Council, said during a protest last fall against the move.

For its part, General Iron’s parent company RMG promises the company will be a better actor in the new facility. But given its history, residents are justifiably skeptical.

“We know they have a record of dangerous fires and explosions,” said Gina Ramirez, a member of South East Coalition to Ban Petcoke, which helped organize an event, expressing her concerns about air pollution and safety. “We don’t want it anywhere near our schools or homes.”

Lightfoot might well have listened more closely from the beginning to the protests of Southeast Siders, whose health has been harmed for decades by the historic toxic industries in and surrounding their neighborhoods.

Time for mayoral leadership

Lightfoot began to pivot on the issue earlier this month after receiving a letter from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan in which he wrote that General Iron’s relocation should be studied more to make sure it doesn’t adversely affect the health of Southeast Side residents.

“Substantial data indicate the current conditions facing Chicago’s Southeast Side epitomize the problem of environmental injustice, resulting from more than a half century of prior actions,” Regan wrote.

Regan also said the city should conduct an environmental justice analysis that includes a Health Impact Assessment

“Because of these well-known degraded environmental conditions, the siting of this facility in Chicago’s Southeast Side has raised significant civil rights concerns,” Regan said. “EPA believes the issues raised by the HUD complaint deserve your careful consideration as the city weighs its environmental permitting decision on the RMG facility.”

The shove from the feds is appreciated.

Lightfoot could have led on the issue of General Iron from the start. It’s not too late.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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