Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration dismissed Southeast Side residents’ concerns about pollution from a planned car-shredding operation as “unfounded” and accused community groups of creating a “blizzard of hyperbolic allegations.”
In a letter to federal officials, a city lawyer defended the administration’s role in relocating General Iron’s business from Lincoln Park to East Side and admonishes residents critical of the move.
“Allegations about negative environmental impact of the additions and improvements to the facility are factually unfounded,” City Deputy Corporation Counsel John Hendricks said in the letter sent late last week to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
HUD is investigating a complaint from community groups that say residents’ civil rights are being violated as owner Reserve Management Group relocates its metal-shredding business from Lincoln Park to a new facility at East 116th Street along the Calumet River. RMG needs a final permit from the city before it opens the new operation and HUD asked the city to hold off on issuing one while it investigates.
The new operation will create more pollution in a majority-Latino area that already has poor air quality, while the city removes a nuisance from white, affluent Lincoln Park as that neighborhood prepares for redevelopment, community groups say.
A permit will be issued no sooner than January after a city review, Hendricks wrote, promising a process to “bring exacting scrutiny and public transparency to bear on the facility’s expanded operations and compliance with environmental standards.”
Hendricks added: “Another important fact lost in the blizzard of hyperbolic allegations is the fact that the RMG facility is more than 2,000 feet or the equivalent of almost seven football fields away from the nearest residence.”
That’s no reassurance to some.
“The city is prioritizing the wishes of this company over the asks and demands of residents,” said Chuck Stark, a biology teacher at nearby George Washington High School. “They are defending RMG.”
General Iron was purchased last year by RMG after signing an agreement with the city to shut down Lincoln Park operations. The city’s role in helping RMG open a new South Side site is central to the HUD complaint.
According to a 2019 “term sheet” between RMG and the Lightfoot Administration, “the city will reasonably cooperate with RMG in achieving the efficient, expeditious transition of the business to the southside properties.”
In the recent letter, the city echoed a company defense that General Iron isn’t actually moving but a new facility is being built near where RMG now operates.
“General Iron is not ‘moving to the Southeast Side,’” Hendricks wrote. “Rather, RMG has purchased General Iron’s assets and will be incorporating some of General Iron’s environmental mitigation equipment … into a new, fully enclosed, state-of-the-art shredder.”
RMG, which has said it expects a “rigorous” review from the city but expects to get the permit, recently settled numerous General Iron citations, including an explosion in May, for $18,000.
Hendricks said in his letter that past violations of city pollution and nuisance laws should have no bearing on the pending permit.
“Any past environmental complaints against the General Iron facility are of no relevance at all to the RMG facility,” Hendricks said. “RMG has operated safely for decades.”
The letter does not mention the May explosion.
A lawyer for one of the Southeast Side community groups called Hendricks’ letter “deeply troubling.”
The letter “sets the city up as the permit’s defender — while once again dismissing and even denigrating the very real health and environmental concerns of the residents of the Southeast Side,” Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Clinic at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, said in a statement.
In addition to the HUD review, Lightfoot and the city also are being sued by a pastor and a pair of South Side residents alleging similar civil rights violations in federal court in Chicago.
“The city’s lawyers are actively doing the bidding of General Iron,” Victor Henderson, a lawyer for the group in the federal lawsuit, said in a statement.
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.