Patrick Houden

Resident activists and environmental groups advocate more oversight for the Southeast Side

Plans have been afoot for months for scrap metal recycler General Iron to move its operations from Lincoln Park to Hegewisch in 2021. But while the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) has scheduled a required virtual public comment period that will take place in two sessions on May 14, Far Southeast Side residents say the hearing—and the move—should be put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic and, more broadly, to General Iron’s long-standing history of air quality violations and environmental pollution, which residents say will place a disproportionate burden on the low-income community. (The deadline to register to comment during the hearing ends at 5pm Tuesday, but written comments will be accepted through June 13.)

At one point the largest steel manufacturing region in the world, the Southeast Side is now one of the most heavily polluted areas in the city. High wages attracted immigrants to work at the steel mills in the late 1800s, and the area enjoyed the benefits of a booming steel business well into the twentieth century. Once the steel mills began to close in the 1980s, though, thousands of residents lost their jobs, leaving the area economically decimated. And while the steel mills closed decades ago, they left behind heavy concentrations of lead and manganese, among other pollutants, in the air and ground. 

Today, Southeast Side residents, many of whom are descendants of former steelworkers, carry the weight of the environmental degradation and public health consequences of the industry; the area contains some of the highest concentrations of both air pollution and asthma in the city. 

Gina Ramirez works as the Midwest outreach manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has partnered with grassroots organizations on the Southeast Side working to prevent General Iron’s move. According to Ramirez, there should be a moratorium on the virtual public comment period and any continued plans to move General Iron to the Far Southeast Side, as the pandemic has added new barriers to the community’s involvement in the decision.

“People are trying to put food on the table. There are a lot of essential workers out here. There are a lot of people who don’t have internet access. It’s a really low-income community, so, you know, to have a public comment period and to organize people is just really, really hard and really frustrating,” Ramirez explained. 

The proposed new location for General Iron’s facilities is near 116th Street and Burley Avenue along the Calumet River, only one mile away from George Washington High School. If environmental violations continue, one major concern is whether students will experience negative health effects from air pollution. In Little Village—which is currently recovering from a reckless demolition in the midst of the pandemicstudents from Little Village Lawndale High School have been in an ongoing fight against the manufacturing facility BWAY, as students are often unable to hold sports practices outside due to the high levels of pollution nearby. 

General Iron’s present attempt is not the first time a North Side industry has relocated south. A. Finkl and Sons Steel, which was ranked as the worst polluter in Chicago by a 2005 U.S. EPA study and was for years General Iron’s neighbor, moved in 2010 from predominantly white Lincoln Park to a predominantly Black neighborhood at East 93rd Street. 

In Chicago, the majority of heavy industry, and thus pollution, is on the South Side. Among the NRDC’s top priorities is holding polluters accountable for ethical practice and following EPA guidelines, while lobbying to change city zoning and land-use laws to make the locations of industrial facilities more equitable. “They shouldn’t all just be in these low-income communities of color,” Ramirez explained, adding, “Public health should be at the forefront of these decisions.”

General Iron’s move is in part the result of strong advocacy from Lincoln Park residents and Aldermen Brian Hopkins (2nd Ward) and Michelle Smith (43rd), who repeatedly reported poor air quality, metallic smells, and noise concerns and lobbied for the city to shut down or move the business. Groups like Clean the North Branch have used Facebook as a tool to organize against General Iron, which has received multiple EPA probes and in the last two years was cited by both the Chicago Department of Public Health and the Illinois EPA for violating the Clean Air Act. More recently, North Side residents advocating for the removal of General Iron voiced concerns that particulate matter air pollution from the facility would make nearby residents more vulnerable to  COVID-19. 

The relocation effort was also supported by the city Department of Planning and Development’s (DPD) Industrial Corridor Modernization Initiative, which intends “to unleash the potential of select industrial areas for advanced manufacturing and technology-oriented jobs while reinforcing industrial areas.”

The initiative involves plans to revitalize areas along the Chicago River and industrial corridors in Ravenswood, Little Village, and elsewhere. Its modernization efforts have already begun on the North Branch of the Chicago River, home to the wealthiest and least pollution-burdened community in the plan, and have helped contribute to the development of upscale apartment complexes that replace former industrial areas. General Iron’s current 1909 North Clifton address is located along the North Branch riverfront adjacent to Sterling Bay’s planned Lincoln Yards development at the former Finkl site.

However, DPD’s modernization initiative leaves out the Southeast Side, home to the city’s largest industrial corridor. And the proposed relocation of General Iron will only bring more industry into an area already struggling, in the middle of a pandemic. 

“The historical burdens of pollution have really just increased vulnerability to COVID-19. We have really high asthma rates here in the neighborhood…My mother has asthma. People have a lot of autoimmune diseases. We have really high cancer rates. So adding another polluter to the neighborhood when the Calumet River is lined with them is completely wrong,” Ramirez said. 

Residents of the Southeast Side have been in a seemingly never-ending fight against polluting industry interests for years. Grassroots efforts in Calumet led to regulations for open petcoke piles at the KCBX terminal when high concentrations of the neurotoxin manganese were found in the neighborhood. Last year, in neighboring Burns Harbor, Indiana, ArcelorMittal’s steel mill dumped toxic levels of cyanide and ammonia into the East Arm of the Calumet River, which flows into Lake Michigan. The spill killed more than 3,000 fish.

In a letter from the CEO of Reserve Management Group to city assistant health commissioner David Graham on March 24, 2020, Steve Joseph stated that individuals on social media have led a misleading campaign to shut down the facility in the lieu of the COVID-19 crisis, saying that General Iron is an essential business and that the “City’s Department of Streets and Sanitation would find it difficult, at best, to meet the burden of handling thousands of additional tons of household appliances and items discarded in alleys.”

The letter included information on volatile organic material testing results from November of 2018 and stated that air emissions testing provided by the EPA in 2018 found that “no emissions…from shredding operations violated any permitted levels.” Joseph also stated that General Iron “is doing more to protect the environment and public health than any other metal shredding facility in the city or area.” 

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While General Iron installed Regenerative Thermal Oxidizers (RTO) in 2019 in response to the air quality violation notice from the EPA in 2019, a report from a city health inspector in December of last year noted that the new equipment was failing to control noxious emissions and “fluff,” or fugitive dust, coming from the facility. 

Olga Bautista, a cofounder of the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, which organized the grassroots effort to eliminate toxic petcoke from the community, said that General Iron’s continued noncompliance and threats to public health at its current location will continue if moved to the Southeast Side.

Both Bautista and Ramirez call for increased transparency and community input when it comes to decisions that impact land use and public health. A digital petition is currently circulating, urging Governor J.B. Pritzker, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and the EPA to stop General Iron’s move. Support has already come from U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, who sent a letter to the EPA on April 21 advocating for the agency to mandate that metal facilities on the Far Southeast Side install toxic-metal and air pollutant monitors and to investigate the facility’s unpermitted operations. 

Though Bautista readily acknowledged that the current location of General Iron poses a danger to its surrounding community, she cautioned against the view that relocating the facility to the Southeast Side would solve any environmental concerns. As she put it, “Moving this business from a white, wealthy community to a low-income minority community is only going to enrich the North Side community and its residents. And that’s going to happen at the expense of the basic quality of life for the residents of the Southeast Side.”

Correction 5/13: This story has been updated to reflect the correct name of the CEO of Reserve Management Group and the agency conducting the comment period.

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Lucia Whalen is a freelance journalist focused on issues related to health, science, and the environment. She is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism and cofounder of Trashy Magazine. This is her first piece for the Weekly.

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