Mayor Johnson appeals General Iron ruling in circuit court

An administrative hearings judge said in early June that a Southeast Side car-shredding operation should’ve gotten its permit.

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Activistas ambientales protestan frente al Ayuntamiento en junio. | Pat Nabong/Archivos Sun-Times

Environmental activists wear capes that have the phrases, “Stop dumping on the Southeast” and “Let us breathe,” written on them outside City Hall June 6.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Brandon Johnson is challenging a recent judge’s ruling that a Southeast Side metal-shredding operation should be allowed to operate.

The city filed a lawsuit in Cook County circuit court Friday against one of its own departments, the Chicago Department of Administrative Hearings, after a judge there ruled June 1 that a controversial scrap metal operation, formerly known as General Iron, should be allowed to open at East 116th Street along the Calumet River. The business is also named as a defendant.

In circuit court, the Johnson administration is asking a judge to overrule the administrative hearings decision, saying that the city was within its right to halt the the opening. In its filing, the city called the administrative hearings decision “clearly erroneous” and said it was “against the manifest weight of the evidence” for the permit denial, including a health impact study.

The health assessment actually factored into the administrative judge’s decision. He said he agreed with the business that it was an added step and that the city wasn’t following its own rules in the permitting process.

Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot blocked the business from opening after a firestorm of protest from community, health and environmental activists who argued that moving a source of pollution from Lincoln Park to a Southeast Side community already suffering from poor air quality was unfair. Activists even staged a hunger strike to oppose the metal shredder.

Community organizers took the case a step further and filed a civil rights complaint with federal housing officials in 2020. Last year, the feds found that the city engaged in racist planning, zoning and land-use practices and demanded Chicago change its ways. Just before leaving office, Lightfoot came to an agreement with the feds.

“I remain committed to alleviating the impact of industrial pollution and my administration will continue working with residents and community organizations to deliver improved health and environmental outcomes,” Johnson said in a separate statement Friday.

Reserve Management Group, which acquired General Iron in 2019, appealed Lightfoot’s decision on the permit in an administrative hearings court run by the city. Lawyers for the business successfully persuaded the judge that the permit should’ve been awarded on technical grounds. They argued Lightfoot was making a political decision.

The same day that ruling was made, Johnson vowed to take the case to circuit court.

Administrative hearings officials didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

In a statement, Reserve Management pointed to the administrative hearings ruling on the health impact study and said the city contradicted itself on its own findings throughout the permit process. The company also said it hadn’t seen the circuit court filing.

The recent administrative hearings decision set off another round of protests. Protesters showed up at City Hall a few days after the permit ruling calling for Johnson to take action.

“The Southeast Side is behind the mayor as we continue this years-long struggle to protect our health,” said Olga Bautista, executive director of the Southeast Side Environmental Task Force.

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

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