The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency authorized in June a permit that would allow for General Iron to relocate its Chicago scrap metal shredder from the affluent neighborhood of Lincoln Park to a working class, majority Latinx, Southeast Side neighborhood.
The zoning permit passed by the IEPA clears the first step for the plant to reopen near the Calumet River after being forced to close its original location earlier this year after multiple explosions disabled the site’s pollution limiting equipment back in May.
The billion dollar development project of Lincoln Yards had already determined that the North Branch General Iron facility would shut down and relocate, citing residents’ distress at the company’s long past of environmentally hazardous emissions. Along with being at odds with North Side residents due to safety concerns, the company’s owners have had a history of harassing employees, creating hostile working conditions, and publishing falsified data on toxic waste.
According to a response by the Chicago Department of Public Health to Southeast Side residents, “the City required that the new site have enhanced environmental controls, including a new recycling facility with an enclosed shredder equipped with suction hood, high efficiency filters and air monitoring technologies.”
What this brings to light is that if the new General Iron facility near the Calumet would indeed be able to function safely this easily, why would it not have been allowed to continue those operations in Lincoln Park? Of course we know that the reality is no amount of stipulations put on a permit will prevent the inherent dangers that come with these types of industries.
The approval to resume operations for a company that had previously been shut down due to its dangerous environmental practices comes in the backdrop of a respiratory pandemic that has claimed the lives of over 7,000 people in Illinois alone, as well as in the middle the largest civil rights movement in a generation. This also comes despite the organized community response calling to reject the proposal to relocate into the Southeast Side.
Community groups had been hosting press conferences, virtual town halls, and demonstrations, as well as calling on Governor JP Pritzker, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and City Hall to step in and to block the permits. In fact the community was successful in pressuring the seemingly reluctant Alderwoman Susan Sadlowski Garza of the 10th Ward, to release a statement calling to delay the approval. However as the next step of approval comes at the hands of the city, the community groups will continue to pressure Sadlowski Garza to put the lives of her constituents ahead of the needs of profit and industry.
The community groups also sent a letter to the Illinois EPA citing the past explosions at the site of the previous metal recycling facility, the company’s history of environmental noncompliance, the company’s underestimated emissions, and the disproportionate impact on communities of color, among other key concerns.
The Illinois EPA’s decision to go forward demonstrates the limits of counting on government agencies, even ones tasked with protecting our ecosystems. Further proof of this is the recent case in which the predominantly African American town of Uniontown, Alabama sued the Alabama Department of Environmental Management for allowing the owners of a landfill to store toxic chemicals that were poisoning the community. The EPA decided to throw out the lawsuit due to “insufficient evidence” of discrimination despite clear disregard for the health of the people in the town.
Air quality in the Southeast Side has long been compromised due to ecological degradation caused by decades of unregulated industrial pollution as well as blatantly racist practices of contamination.
The Southeast Side had long been a major hub of US Steel with multiple mills located near the Calumet River. Neighbors believed that the air quality and the overall environment would be much cleaner as a result of the deindustrialization of the area, however in the years that have followed the industrial pollution was merely replaced with other forms of pollution.
The Chicago South East Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, who have been one of the leading groups protesting the General Iron metal shredder, was born out of a previous struggle several years ago to call on then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel to remove the piles of petroleum coke that were poisoning the community. Petcoke, as it is also known, is a toxic coal-like powder which is the byproduct of refining of tar sands oil, and is considered by health experts to be one of the dirtiest fossil fuels in the world.
The community successfully pressured the city to enact more strict regulations on the storing of petcoke against KCBX, the Koch Brothers subsidiary responsible for the petcoke in the area.
However, residents of the Southeast side have voiced the long-term damage that the petcoke dust has already done to people’s health. According to a report by the EPA particles inhaled by individuals could cause immediate long term problems to the heart and lungs. To make matters worse, the EPA had to step in once prior due to the toxic levels of manganese that were found in several parts of the neighborhood.
All of these health problems would only be exacerbated by the new pollution brought at the hands of the General Iron shredder once it’s allowed to break ground. While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate Black and Brown neighborhoods, the city’s lack of concern over the health and safety of low-income communities of color is par for the course.
The decision to rubber stamp the zoning permit comes only a few months after the company Hilco Redevelopment Partners botched the demolition of a smokestack that covered the neighborhood of Little Village in smoke, ash and dust. The smokestack was part of a nearly hundred year old Crawford coal power plant that had been decommissioned almost a decade ago.
In the following days and weeks Little Village and Chicago residents called out Hilco as well as Mayor Lori Lightfoot for the irresponsible decision to go ahead with the dangerous demolition in a community already suffering the long term health effects of industrial pollution as well as dealing with the risks of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What all of these instances demonstrate is that companies like General Iron, Hilco, KCBX and countless other polluters have been allowed to regulate themselves for decades without much interference from government agencies. What this results in is the prioritization of their profits and stakeholders, while they blatantly disregard the working class communities around them.
As a result of these past dirty fuel practices, Chicago has some of the highest rates of childhood asthma in the entire country, specifically in the Southeast Side, Little Village, and the Pilsen neighborhood. Just like the Crawford factory in Little Village, the now decommissioned Fisk coal power plant in Pilsen pumped over a million tons of carbon dioxide into the lungs of residents. While the majority of cities in the country saw a reduction in emissions and saw cleaner air as a result of shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a Chicago Tribune article reported that the decades of racialized environmental contamination made it so Chicago has actually seen an increase in soot levels during this health crisis.
As Harvard biostatistic professor Francesca Dominici said in the article, “When you think about how fine particulate matter kills you and how COVID-19 kills you, you realize that more soot in the air is like throwing gasoline on a fire.”
Across the country, Indigenous and minority communities have long been bearing the brunt of environmental destruction. But what all these stories show is that environmental racism has long been a staple of the city of Chicago specifically.
Perhaps one of the most shameful things about the General Iron facility is its proximity to the neighborhood schools. The site of the plant is less than a mile away from George Washington High School, and not much further away from George Washington Elementary School. At a press conference hosted by the South East Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, high school science teacher Chuck Stark made mention that 16.68 tons of particulate matter would be emitted annually by General Iron, more than four times the amount permitted.
“Exposure to such particles can affect both your lungs and your heart. Numerous scientific studies have linked particle pollution exposure to a variety of problems, including:
• Premature death in people with heart or lung disease
• Nonfatal heart attacks
• Irregular heartbeat
• Aggravated asthma
• Decreased lung function
• Increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing.”
These dangerous particles would essentially be blown almost directly in the direction of the two schools, putting over 2,200 students in danger of the emissions’ adverse effects.
“I’ve heard stories of students tell me that they suffer from asthma and when they go outside to practice for softball or for P.E., they’re already struggling and have to use inhalers in order to get through practice or get through P.E. class,” Stark said.
“General Iron is talking about emitting even more particle pollution, and as the EPA points out, will increase the amount of aggravated asthma in the area,” Stark said.
Alderwoman Sadlowski Garza is a former school counselor and former member of the Chicago Teachers Union. With this background, it should be her utmost priority to come forward in clear opposition to the metal shredder and the danger it would pose to students in her ward.
If Mayor Lighfoot and the City of Chicago decide to go forward with the construction of this plant it will further prove the narrative that the Mayor’s office is only here to look out for the interests of the wealthy capitalists and developers that continue to exacerbate the disparity between them and the rest of the city.
Mayor Lightfoot recently proved her lack of consideration for the needs of Black and Brown communities when she dismissed calls of the Black Lives Matter movement to defund the Chicago Police Department as just a “nice hashtag.”
In June the unelected Chicago Board of Education, appointed by Lightfoot herself, voted to continue the $33 million dollar contract to keep CPD inside Chicago Public Schools. Lightfoot continuously ignores Black and Brown people in the middle of a massive rebellion against police brutality that has also highlighted how embedded racism is in every institution in this country. One can only begin to think about how instead of investing millions of dollars in propagating the school to prison pipeline, the city could have invested that money to hire more social workers or crisis counselors to help students with the traumatic losses they face at the hands of the coronavirus that has devastated their communities, as well hiring more school nurses to help with the myriad of health issues that children of color have to deal with as a result of more than a century of environmental disparity.
“Chicago is not broke, but the mayor’s priorities are. The best way to keep our communities safe and address police brutality is not by spending more on policing, but instead by investing in jobs, education and health care. It’s time for our city to seriously look at cutting the police budget and directing those funds to the public programs that will support working-class and poor Chicagoans.”
The last 40 years of neoliberalism have allowed for the privatization of green spaces, the deregulation of dirty industries, and have resulted in an absolutely massive transfer of wealth to the rich. We only get one chance at a sustainable planet, so everyone has a shared interest in winning the fight for climate justice. We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines as marginalized groups fight for their lives against institutional and environmental racism. We must stand in solidarity with activists of color and Indigenous communities in their struggles to shut down major polluters and continue to push for programs and reforms that can attempt to mitigate the harm done to our ecosystem due to industrial capitalism run rampant.
As residents of these communities have long stated, Black and Brown children deserve to breathe the same clean air and drink the same clean water as the rich and White.