Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s top public health official has determined that a car-shredding operation will not open on the Southeast Side, ending an almost three-year battle between her administration and residents who said they can’t tolerate any more air pollution.
Southside Recycling, the renamed, relocated business formerly known as General Iron, had expected to open about a year ago under an agreement with the city. Community organizers fought back, saying the industrial Southeast Side already suffers from very poor air quality. The fact that the business was being moved from white, affluent Lincoln Park to a working-class Latino neighborhood surrounded by Black communities is racist, residents said. That claim drew a federal civil rights investigation that is ongoing.
The city’s health department “finds that the facility proposes to undertake an inherently dangerous activity in a vulnerable community area, and the applicant failed to provide sufficient evidence that the facility can comply and stay in compliance with the terms and conditions of a permit, [municipal] code, or the rules as necessary to fully protect the residents of the Southeast Side,” Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said in a letter to the business owner.
Lightfoot appeared to be moving toward approving the final city permit Southside Recycling needed to operate when President Joe Biden’s top environmental official stepped in last May to ask the mayor to pause the process and conduct a health impact assessment. It was that assessment that Lightfoot’s administration cited in denying the permit. Public health officials said this week that the new facility — at East 116th Street along the Calumet River, close to schools, parks and homes — would add to air pollution and “presents an unacceptable risk.”
“The potential addition of another polluter in this overburdened and underserved community raised significant environmental justice and civil rights concerns,” Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement Friday. “I applaud Mayor Lightfoot for listening to those concerns and acting to protect the health of the residents.”
The business owner, Reserve Management Group, sued the city for holding up the permit process and is asking for more than $100 million in damages.
The company noted in a statement that J.B. Pritzker’s administration had issued a state permit needed to operate and added that environmental safety was validated at that level of government. The company vowed to fight the city’s decision.
“We will continue to pursue all avenues to challenge this decision, including pressing our lawsuit against the city, which will likely result in taxpayers being on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages,” the statement said. “Aside from the litigation, this decision is a clear message to any businesses or industries that might be considering expansion or investment in Chicago: The city is not a reliable partner and is not open for business.”
A number of community and environmental groups fought City Hall for the last several years. They marched, protested — and a group of people even staged a hunger strike last year. Three of the groups — Southeast Environmental Task Force, People for Community Recovery and Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke — said the city’s decision may “be a turning point for communities of color that have been hurt by environmental racism for decades.”
“Although we are celebrating this decision, the community continues to deal with the toxic legacy that has allowed pollution to accumulate in our community and we will not stop fighting for our right to clean air, and we will continue to fight until the health of Chicago communities like ours can live in a healthy environment,” the statement said.
A civil rights investigation was opened in 2020 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to determine if the relocation of General Iron was indicative of discriminatory practices by the city related to zoning and land use. If the city is found to have violated the Fair Housing Act, tens of millions of dollars in annual HUD funding would be at stake.
HUD representatives did not respond to a request for comment.
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.