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Feds investigating city after civil rights complaint filed by environmental groups

The Department of Housing and Urban Development opened a formal inquiry after Southeast Side groups accused Chicago of environmental racism.

General Iron is seeking to move operations from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side.
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Federal officials are investigating the city after Southeast Side residents complained their civil rights were violated by a long pattern of environmental racism.

A Department of Housing and Urban Development official confirmed in an email last week to local community groups that the department “opened a complaint” to look into allegations that residents’ rights were violated under federal fair housing laws. A HUD spokeswoman acknowledged the email but declined to comment.

The groups cited zoning and land-use policies, highlighting the city’s current role in relocating General Iron’s metal-shredding operation from the mostly white, affluent Lincoln Park to the Latino-majority East Side neighborhood. The facility still needs one additional permit from the city to operate on the Southeast Side.

“Racist policies are killing our neighborhood by making it a dumping ground for the dirtiest and most dangerous polluters,” said Peggy Salazar, director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, one of three environmentally active community organizations that filed the complaint with HUD in August.

Years of zoning and land-use practices by the city discriminate against Black and Latino residents while benefiting white neighborhoods where home values surged, the groups allege. Chicago’s actions have violated the federal Fair Housing Act and the city should be ordered to change the way it plans for industrial sites that pollute, the groups say in their complaint.

The city receives various types of funding from HUD and as part of those funding agreements, Chicago must abide by the Fair Housing Act. With funding at stake, the city may be pressured to revise its practices.

The complaint names Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the city of Chicago, the City Council, Ald. Brian Hopkins, whose 2nd Ward includes the current General Iron site, and Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza, whose 10th Ward would house the new metal-shredding facility.

A spokeswoman for Lightfoot declined to comment. Neither Garza or Hopkins responded to requests for comment.

The city’s role in promoting the North Side development Lincoln Yards, an impetus for General Iron’s move to East Side following its sale to another company, is cited by the community groups as an example of Chicago’s unfair practices. In fact, an agreement signed in 2019 between Lightfoot’s administration and General Iron’s owner that helped the shredding operation move south was an event that triggered the HUD complaint, according to the groups.

The city supports the shredding operations move to the Southeast Side even though its own regulatory actions allege pollution and nuisance violations by General Iron in Lincoln Park, the groups say, adding that the North Side facility has been a source of noxious fumes, explosions, dust and a substance called auto shredder fluff created by the shredding of junked cars. For its part, Reserve Management Group, which acquired General Iron in 2018, said in a statement it “has proven itself over decades to conduct environmentally responsible recycling activities.”

Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke and People for Community Recovery are the other two groups who filed the complaint.

“Communities of color have to be part of the solution,” said Cheryl Johnson, director of People for Community Recovery. “The city has been shutting us out.”

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