‘Sham process’ on General Iron has shocked business community

After watching this process play out, the city and U.S. EPA have a lot of work to do to rebuild the trust of the business community.

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The entrance to General Iron’s car and metal shredding facility, under construction near South Burley Avenue and East 116th Street on the Southeast Side is seen from East 116th Street on 2020.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Last week, the City of Chicago, in apparent coordination with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, issued synchronized press releases touting the denial of a permit. The permit at issue was the last piece of the complicated puzzle of bureaucracy and red tape required of Reserve Management Group (RMG) to operate its new state-of-the-art scrap shredding facility in the Southeast Side and has now left them scrambling with what to do with their fancy new paperweight, while the rest of Illinois’ business community watches in shock.

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There were signs that this was coming. While the ink was still wet on the agreement the mayor’s office signed with RMG to relocate the former General Iron scrapyard from Lincoln Parkto the Southeast Side and promising “cooperation” and “assistance” with the move, the city adopted a new ordinance requiring RMG and other large recycling facilities to install the most extensive pollution controls in the industry, and to obtain yet another permit from the city (in addition to the zoning approval that RMG obtained from the city and the permit from the Illinois EPA that was also issued). After investing $80 million in the site, RMG committed to the city that it would comply and asked for the newly required permit. Hunger strikes and protests in front of the mayor’s house ensued.

Then there was the mysterious call between the mayor and the new head of President Joe Biden’s EPA, which conveniently provided further excuse for delaying RMG to start up its operations — the letter attacking the Illinois EPA’s permit and claiming that environmental justice required that the city work with U.S. EPA to perform a never-before-done analysis to ensure the safety of the Southeast Side community. This past summer, the business community reached out to U.S. EPA seeking clarity on what that analysis entailed and was cordially greeted by representatives of EPA’s regional office in Chicago, who agreed to a robust and transparent dialog to figure that out together. Repeated attempts to continue the conversation past the first meeting have been disregarded by EPA.

Which brings us to the events of last week. The city’s expert environmental consultants, hired at the demand of U.S. EPA to perform a cumulative environmental review, publicly reported their finding that the “Calculated risk for residential and sensitive locations are less than the benchmark thresholds for carcinogenic risks and non-carcinogenic hazards.” The city and U.S. EPA press releases that accompanied the denial letter ignored their own study’s conclusion, and instead proclaimed that they were “acting to protect the health of the residents” and made no mention of the 100-plus jobs the community would lose out on.

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The Illinois business community is not falling for this sham process. The multiyear process that RMG was subjected to as it sought to “work cooperatively” with the mayor’s office now appears to have been a cruel joke on the company — the city got what it wanted – the General Iron scrap yard out of Lincoln Park — then scrambled for time even, enlisting the help of U.S. EPA to delay, until they could contrive an excuse to deny the permit. After watching this process play out, the city and U.S. EPA have a lot of work to do to rebuild the trust of the business community. 

Todd Maisch is the president & CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. Alec Davis is the executive director of the Illinois Environmental Regulatory Group.

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