This story originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times.
CHICAGO—A year and a half ago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she planned to repurpose hundreds of abandoned, polluted industrial sites left over from Chicago’s manufacturing heyday.
Lightfoot said she would announce plans to use those sites to help build a cleaner, greener economy that would create jobs, especially in low-income communities plagued by the air pollution that industry had brought.
“Chicago is still, in some ways, transitioning from a big, industrial city to a city that recognizes environmental justice and environmental health,” the mayor said then. “We have got to have a longer-term plan on how we really repurpose a lot of these brownfields and other remnants of Chicago’s industrial past and thinking about how we can really lean into the green economy.”
A year and a half later, Lightfoot still hasn’t put forth her promised plan for those old, industrial properties.
Since then, the mayor had been fighting with residents of the Southeast Side—which once was home to steel mills and still is one of the most heavily industrial parts of the city—over a plan to move a car- and metal-shredding operation there that was a polluter in Lincoln Park and would worsen the air quality in an already-polluted neighborhood.
Then, in a turnabout that City Hall announced Friday, Lightfoot’s administration rejected the final permit that the company formerly known as General Iron needed to make that move to the site of a former steel mill on East 116th Street along the Calumet River.
That rejection came as the owner of the business, now known as Southside Recycling, continues to seek more than $100 million in a lawsuit it filed against the city for failing to grant that permit on a previously agreed timetable that required the metal shredder to shut down its North Side operation.
A civil rights investigation by federal housing officials ensued, after community groups said it was racist to move a longtime polluter from heavily white, wealthy Lincoln Park to the Latino- and Black-majority Southeast Side.
But the move appeared to remain on track until President Joe Biden’s top environmental chief, Michael Regan, stepped in. He asked Lightfoot last May for a “community health impact analysis” before making a decision on the permit.
The General Iron fight started the same way as many disputes do involving development that people in the surrounding community oppose. But community activists were able to attract broader support that included hundreds of public health professionals petitioning the city to deny the permit on the grounds it would hurt the health of people living nearby.
The air on the Southeast Side has some of the highest levels of fine soot in Chicago. It’s also monitored for levels of brain-damaging lead and other heavy metals. The incidence of cancer among people who live there is among the highest in the city. And Southeast Side residents have a shorter life expectancy than people who live elsewhere in Chicago.
When Regan, the administrator under Biden of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, entered the permit dispute last year, he rattled off a number of health hazards that Southeast Side residents face. Among them: living near hazardous waste sites, ingesting higher levels of toxic air pollutants that raise the risk of cancer and respiratory problems, facing dangers from old lead paint and heavy traffic.
There are nearly 250 facilities in the area that are actively monitored for air pollution, Regan said, including more than 75 that have been investigated since 2014 for noncompliance with the federal Clean Air Act.
On Friday, Regan praised Lightfoot’s decision to reject the shredder permit, saying, “This is what environmental justice looks like.”
Community activists, surprised by the mayor’s change in course, called it an “enormous victory” and vowed to continue pressing for environmental justice reforms.
“The denial of this permit is a defining moment for my community,” said Gina Ramirez, a Southeast Side activist. “I hope this can be a model for environmental justice communities across the country.”
Reserve Management Group had announced in July 2018 it intended to acquire General Iron’s assets, business and name while the Labkon family that owned the operation would keep the Lincoln Park land.
Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration wanted General Iron to leave Lincoln Park to make way for a proposed multibillion-dollar real estate development that was touted as a potential site for Amazon to create its second headquarters.
Even though it operated at the North Side location for decades, General Iron was viewed as a nuisance by neighbors as the area nearby grew gentrified over the past 30 years. The business was the last vestige of a former industrial corridor.
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RMG, which already operated several businesses around the East 116th location, didn’t acquire General Iron until more than a year after announcing the deal. The hold up: RMG and General Iron wanted to sign an agreement with the city first that laid out a timetable for the company to shut down North Side operations while building on the Southeast Side.
“We’ll get the permit,” RMG chief executive Steven Joseph said in an October 2020 interview. He added that he was confident that City Hall would grant the approvals required for his business to operate.
But Southeast Side community organizers fought back. They previously had battled against the presence of harmful materials in their neighborhood including bulk manganese and pet coke, resulting in new city regulations. Social media taglines #StopGeneralIron and #DenyThePermit grew popular, as health advocacy organizations, politicians and social justice advocates in Chicago and across the country showed their support.
In September 2020, the month Lightfoot promised a greener future for industrial areas of the city, Southeast Side groups filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, saying their civil rights were being violated and asking for an investigation.
The shredder plans helped trigger that. But the complaint more broadly also cited what it called Chicago’s discriminatory history of planning and zoning.
If the investigation, which continues, ends up finding that the city has violated the Fair Housing Act, that would give federal authorities the power to make Chicago officials choose between changing discriminatory practices or facing the possibility of losing about $100 million a year in federal funding.
Among those who fought against the shredder was Trinity Colon, 18, a senior at George Washington High School, which is less than half a mile away.
“Growing up, everybody I knew had asthma,” said Colon, who has taken part in demonstrations with other students. “I thought that was a normal thing.”