On December 9, a community engagement consulting firm hired by the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) led a virtual town hall about the relocation of Reserve Management Group’s (RMG) metal-shredding facility from Lincoln Park, an affluent, majority-white neighborhood on the North Side, to the Southeast Side. The proposed new location is in a community that once boasted a booming industrial corridor and is plagued by environmental injustice as a result, according to activists.
Their opposition to the move is supported by a recent report issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that says pollution on the Southeast Side “epitomize[s] the problem of environmental injustice”, and the proposed plant raises “significant civil rights concerns.”
Dozens of organizations and communities all across the City have expressed solidarity with activists. The environmental injustice concerns have even prompted the Department of Housing and Urban Development to launch a civil rights investigation.
In a letter addressed to City officials, Wayne Giles, the dean of the UIC School of Public Health, wrote, “The well-documented excess burden of pollution already experienced by residents living in Southeast Chicago is strong enough evidence against a permit for the RMG/Southside Recycling’s facility in the Southeast Side.”
At the beginning of the meeting, CPDH’s managing deputy commissioner issued an apology for a series of scheduling flops that resulted in the meeting getting cancelled forty-eight hours prior to its originally scheduled date of December 2. The meeting was initially rescheduled for a future in-person event, then changed to a virtual session the following week that conflicted with an existing community meeting.
Officials presented no new information at the meeting, which capped registration at 150 attendees, including eighteen users listed as co-hosts with the department, three reporters, and an unclear number of RMG affiliates. The RMG affiliates engaged in discussions with moderators and 10th Ward residents in break-out rooms, prompting questions about the potential benefits of permit approval, the community burdens, and consideration of resident life experience. The meeting was the second session of a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) the City promised to host in order to collect, analyze and consider resident life experience as part of the permitting decision.
“With the lack of community involvement in this investigation through the Health Impact Assessment and the reporting of it, we have seen how they are rushing,” Alliance of the SouthEast (ASE) Director of Youth and Restorative Justice Programming Óscar Sánchez said in an email to the Weekly after the meeting. “It demonstrates how two city initiatives/events are planned at the same time and day, showing the disregard for intention and true community participation.”
Linda Gonzalez, who lives in South Deering and works in Hegewisch, described the City’s approach to the assessment as “a rush to approve this permit regardless of the impact on our community.”
“It fails to address the impact of the large hole in the ozone over [the] region and the cumulative impact of pollution from neighboring [Environmental Justice] communities in Indiana,” Gonzalez said. “We are supposed to have a cumulative impact assessment then a cumulative [health] impact ordinance.”
The evening of the meeting, The Tribune published text messages between 10th Ward Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza and Mayor Lori Lightfoot from April 2020 about a call Sadlowski Garza had with local environmental activists regarding the shredder’s relocation.
According to the Tribune, Sadlowski Garza texted, “They disseminate the wrong information. They dont play well with others So Fuck them,” to which Lightfoot replied, “I am riding with you til the end!”
When asked by the Weekly about Saldowski Garza’s text messages, Gina Ramirez, an organizer with the Southeast Environmental Task Force, said, “it’s unprofessional but sadly not [surprising], because Sue [Sadlowski] Garza has in a meeting told us, literally, ‘f— you.’”
In a statement emailed to the Weekly, Sadlowski Garza denied that, and did not comment directly on the content of the text messages. “I refuse to engage in this pearl clutching hysteria,” she said. There was no sign of Sadlowski Garza at the meeting or the rally organized for the following afternoon on Friday, December 10, outside Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) Commissioner Allison Arwady’s home in Lincoln Park. Sadlowski Garza told the Weekly in an email that she wasn’t told about the rally beforehand.
Chloe Gurin, a Little Italy resident and manager at the Metropolitan Planning Council, was among the first to arrive at the rally, and had only one message for Dr. Arwady: “Listen to the people. Deny the permit.”
Byron Sigcho-Lopez, the 25th Ward alderperson, joined more than seventy-five community members, wearing ponchos and carrying umbrellas, to call on Arwady to deny the permit.
“What affects the city of Chicago should concern all of us,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “Those decisions have implications for every neighborhood. If today is General Iron, tomorrow will be another facility affecting another industrial corridor in our communities, and what is clear is our working class neighborhoods, Black and brown communities, get affected the most.”
This past spring, Sigcho-Lopez was among hundreds of supporters who briefly joined community activists’ thirty-day hunger strike to urge Mayor Lightfoot to reconsider issuing the permit, prior to EPA officials intervening in May and prompting the health assessment.
“Denying the permit is important because it will set a precedent that the lives in our communities are not disposable and ultimately we have the right to voice our concerns,” Sigcho-Lopez continued. “The majority of residents are challenging this permit. …Dr. Arwady has the responsibility as a public health expert [and] as the commissioner of public health to review this permit based on the public health guidelines, and what we’ve heard from many public health experts is this permit should be denied.”
This past summer, the City declared racism a public health crisis—but that gesture apparently did little to spur completion of the health impact assessment or broaden the City’s accountability to the community around long-standing systemic health inequities suffered by vulnerable residents of the Southeast Side, in a ZIP code where pre-existing conditions exacerbate the health challenges caused by COVID-19. The City has not released scheduling information for the final session of the health impact assessment expected to take place in January.
“It hasn’t been a community-driven process at all,” Ramirez said at the rally. “I had to take time away from my family to sit in on another meeting where two RMG employees were in my break-out room. It’s like a bad class college project that they’re schlepping together and it just really shows that they aren’t taking this seriously.”
Ermina Veljacic is a writer who was born in Bosnia and bred on Chicago’s Southeast Side. She last wrote about the East Side and South Chicago for the Weekly’s 2021 “Best of the South Side” issue.