Faced with an outcry from neighborhood activists, federal civil rights investigations and pressure from the Biden administration, Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Friday blocked a clout-heavy scrap shredder from opening on Chicago’s Southeast Side.
Lightfoot’s decision to reject a permit for Reserve Management Group leaves the Ohio-based company with piles of flattened cars, twisted rebar and used appliances surrounding an idled machine it built along the Calumet River under a deal RMG executives thought they had brokered with the mayor.
The Chicago Department of Public Health announced the permit denial in a news release that cited the long history of pollution problems at the General Iron scrap shredder RMG purchased and later closed on the city’s North Side, and at related operations on the company’s Southeast Side property.
“Concerns about the company’s past and potential noncompliance are too significant to ignore,” Dr. Allison Arwady, the city health commissioner, said in a statement.
City and state agencies had awarded other permits RMG needed, even as neighborhood groups accused the first Black woman to lead Chicago of ignoring concerns about adding another polluter to a low-income, largely Black and Latino neighborhood.
Local and national environmental groups hailed the city’s reversal after more than two years of community organizing.
Neighborhood activists who opposed the shredder protested outside the homes of Lightfoot and Arwady. They petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Housing and Urban Development to launch civil rights investigations. Some staged a hunger strike to draw attention to what they consider environmental racism.
“Our community is not a sacrifice zone,” opponents said Friday in a statement that pledged to “continue to fight until the health of Chicago communities like ours can live in a healthy environment.”
RMG closed General Iron at the end of 2020 following years of complaints about explosions, metallic odors and bits of scrap metal drifting into fast-gentrifying Lincoln Park. Company officials contend a September 2019 agreement should have fast-tracked the Southeast Side operation, but they failed to persuade judges to force the city to do so.
Earlier this week, the company noted, a consultant hired by the city announced that pollution from the Southeast Side shredder would not pose unacceptable cancer risks — defined by the EPA as more than one case per million people during a lifetime.
Nor would the shredder increase the risk of other health problems, Jeff Harrington, an air quality expert with California-based Tetra Tech, said during an online presentation organized by the city.
RMG released a statement vowing to challenge Friday’s decision.
“Politicians and government officials have ignored the facts and instead were cowed by persistent false narratives and misinformation aimed at demonizing our business,” the statement read. “What should have been an apolitical permitting process was hijacked by a small but vocal opposition that long ago made clear they would unconditionally oppose this facility, facts and science be damned.”
The city’s permitting process for RMG ground to a halt last year after a top lieutenant to President Joe Biden urged Lightfoot to consider how existing pollution problems on the Southeast Side “epitomize the problem of environmental injustice.”
Three neighborhoods near the RMG shredder — East Side, Hegewisch and South Deering — are scarred by 250 contaminated sites left behind when the steel industry abandoned the once-prosperous corner of Chicago during the 1980s and ’90s, EPA Administrator Michael Regan noted in a letter to Lightfoot.
Biden and Regan came into office pledging to address the nation’s long-standing racial disparities, in particular the concentration of dirty industries in poor communities of color.
“This is what environmental justice looks like: All levels of government working together to protect vulnerable communities from pollution in their backyards,” Regan said in a statement about the RMG permit denial.
“As we did in Chicago,” Regan said, “EPA stands ready to work hand-in-hand with local and state partners to fix environmental wrongs and achieve shared goals of protecting all people from pollution.”
Heading into a reelection campaign, Lightfoot has been under fire from activists who contend she has done little other than acknowledging the racial, economic and environmental divide in one of the nation’s most segregated cities.
People living on the Southeast Side breathe some of the city’s dirtiest air, monitoring data shows. A study by the Department of Public Health confirmed that neighborhoods near the RMG site are significantly more vulnerable to pollution than the wealthy, largely white North Side neighborhoods where the company operated the now-defunct General Iron shredder.
Some of the city’s most prominent physicians and public health experts amplified the opposition to RMG with statements directed at Arwady, including a letter organized by Wayne Giles, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“Fighting for racial justice also means committing to building voice and power in the public health system of those who may be most burdened by city decisions in every step,” Giles wrote in a January letter noting Lightfoot and Arwady had “declared racism a public health crisis.”
Underlying the shredder dispute are zoning ordinances intended to encourage and protect industry in certain parts of Chicago.
General Iron lost those special protections under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who backed the transformation of properties zoned for industrial use along the North Branch of the Chicago River into the upscale Lincoln Yards development.
RMG’s shredder on the Calumet River, built amid the ruins of the former Republic Steel mill, is in another Planned Manufacturing District that includes several of the city’s dirtiest industries.
Attempts to draw other types of development remain difficult, if not impossible.
In 2018, Spanish and Irish developers walked away from plans to build as many as 20,000 new homes on the site of the former U.S. Steel South Works, a contaminated 440-acre parcel on Lake Michigan with spectacular views of the Chicago skyline. Project renderings included retail and office space, parks, pedestrian and bike paths and waterfront walkways along boat docks.
The site, where steel was made for the U.S. military during World War II and later in the construction of iconic Chicago skyscrapers, remains vacant.