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Lincoln Park, Old Town

Before General Iron Leaves Lincoln Park For Southeast Side, Neighbors Want Cleaner Air — And Answers

"Our air remains polluted, toxic fluff continues to fall, the stench is worse and our questions to GI remain unanswered," neighbors wrote to General Iron's new owners.

General Iron, 1909 N. Clifton Ave., will leave its longtime home at the end of 2020.
Hannah Alani / Block Club Chicago
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LINCOLN PARK — General Iron, a scrap metal shredding facility located along the Chicago River near Lincoln Park, plans to close its operation by the end of 2020 and move to the Southeast Side.

Before that happens, some of the scrapyard’s longtime neighbors want to meet company owners to discuss their concerns related to health and safety.

The acrid smell near the plant is undeniable to anyone walking or even driving past, but the company’s new owners, Reserve Management Group, won’t meet.

Instead, they sent neighbors a lengthy statement in which they dispelled “misinformation” about the plant’s air emissions testing, air monitoring standards and alleged links to asthma.

At the end of the statement, the company wrote it will engage in a “genuine dialogue” on the basis of facts that are “grounded on legitimate science.”

“Unfortunately, it appears that tweeting inaccurate and irresponsible information is driving neighborhood engagement, rather than discussing real facts,” the company wrote.

Read the full statement here.

Move To Southeast Side ‘Unfathomable,’ Neighbor Says

For neighbor Lara Compton, the statement felt like a slap in the face.

“Them not coming to the table, not having a conversation, not looking around at the impact [the plant has] on our community, is not acceptable,” she said. “We’re not making this up.”

Another former neighbor, a 34-year-old mother of two, finally moved out of the neighborhood after complaining to city officials about air quality for 8 years — to no avail.

“I could smell it every day,” she said. “I could see it in every crevice of the sidewalk. My children went to The Goddard School in Lincoln Park so they were within a couple blocks of General Iron all day, every day.”

This week’s letter to neighbors comes on the heels of the company’s promise to Mayor Lori Lightfoot Lightfoot and Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) to vacate the riverfront site by the end of 2020.

That agreement was fashioned following a 2015 fire, a 2016 city-ordered shutdown, a 2017 harassment lawsuit and a 2018 EPA citation for excessive air emissions.

RELATED: After Explosions at Extra-Alarm Scrap Yard Fire, Ald. Calls for Its Closure

Long owned by the Labkon family, General Iron sold this year to Reserve Management Group, a specialist in recycling and scrap metal processing with operations in nine states.

In 2021, RMG will move the plant from its current spot, 1909 N. Clifton Ave., to 11600 S. Burley Ave., spokesperson Randall Samborn told Block Club.

The environmental equipment RMG will deploy on the Southeast Side includes an enclosed shredder equipped with suction hoods, high efficiency filters, solar panels and air monitoring technologies.

The company will move two pieces of post-shredding equipment currently in use on the North Side, Samborn said. One is a wet scrubber. The second is a $2 million RTO thermal oven that burns or bakes away emissions.

General Iron, 1909 N. Clifton Ave., uses a wet scrubber before shredding scrap metal.
General Iron, 1909 N. Clifton Ave., uses a wet scrubber before shredding scrap metal.

Compton, who has lived nearby for a decade, said she still doesn’t trust the company’s new owners will do enough to protect the health and safety of its future neighbors on the Southeast Side.

“It doesn’t make me feel good at all,” she said. “This company has proven time and time again that it’s above the law, that it’s not going to abide by the laws. … It’s unfathomable that they should be given a permit in another part of the city when they  can’t operate in this part of the city.”

Since General Iron changed ownership, Compton said, air quality has gotten worse.

Neighbors installed a PurpleAir sensor at the corner of West Dickens and North Clifton avenues. Data collected from the sensor populates live on this map.

General Iron leaders rejected the results in their statement, saying the PurpleAir sensor picks up air pollutants from multiple sources, not just General Iron.

Additionally, the company’s new leaders said General Iron is already in compliance with EPA air quality testing requirements, and is working to fully comply with an administrative consent order issued by the EPA in August.

The consent order was issued before RMG bought the site, Samborn said.

“Any assertion that ‘air pollution’ from the facility is getting worse is simply false,” company leaders said in the statement.

‘Fugitive Dust’: What The Fluff?

In a September newsletter to constituents, Hopkins shared a study by the Centers for Disease Control, which found alarming asthma rates in the neighborhood.

Particulate air pollution (PM2.5) in the 60614 zip code, Hopkins said, was found to be more severe than 95 percent of all zip codes in Illinois.

“I promised those residents in 2014 that if I were elected as their alderman, I would fight to stop this operation from emitting toxic pollution or shut it down completely,” Hopkins said.

In this week’s statement, General Iron leaders disputed Hopkins’ analysis of the CDC research.

In 2015, the company leaders said, the average asthma rate in nearby neighborhoods was 7.76 percent; the statewide rate was 8.4 percent.

While General Iron’s statement addressed neighborhood concerns regarding air quality and asthma rates, it failed to address one of the neighborhood’s biggest concerns: the “fluff” that coats the neighborhood’s sidewalks, roads, porches and playgrounds.

The EPA defines fluff as “fugitive dust.” In 2006 and 2012, General Iron agreed to two settlements with the EPA involving refrigerant and fugitive dust escaping the facility.

And in 2018, the EPA cited General Iron after inspectors found fugitive dust outside the shredder site. The law requires fugitive dust not be “visible by an observer looking generally” toward a metal shredder.

General Iron disputed the allegation and the EPA dropped it from an Administrative Consent Order issued in August, Samborn said.

In 2006 and 2012, General Iron agreed to two settlements with the EPA involving refrigerant and fugitive dust or “fluff” escaping the facility. Spokesperson Randy Samborn said the fluff is not hazardous.

Compton said she cautions her children against playing outside when the air “smells” a certain way. PAWS, a neighboring business, changes its HVAC air filters weekly, Compton said.

“PAWS literally has to change their air filters on a weekly basis because they go from white to black in seven days,” she said. “That’s insane.”

In September, Hopkins shared a video of the “fluff” accumulating in sidewalk cracks in a newsletter to his constituents.

Samborn told Block Club the fluff is not hazardous, but would not disclose what it contained or say whether General Iron has tested it. Without knowing what’s in the fluff, Block Club was unable to independently confirm whether or not the dust is toxic.

He also challenged Ald. Hopkins’ assertion that the dust is toxic.

“Where’s the proof?” he said.

“We have a very rigorous inspection system,” Samborn said. “There are hazardous materials that we would never accept. … Propane cylinders for gas grills. … We make sure those are properly disposed of.”

But neighbors say that’s not enough.

An air filter in the Ranch Triangle neighborhood after a week of use.

Compton is a member of Clean the North Branch, a group of residents who have met with city and state political leaders and communicated directly with city health officials and the EPA.

On Twitter, the group regularly shares snippets of life in the neighborhood.

Tweets often include images of the “fluff” collecting in sidewalks, links to studies on air pollutants or allegations of General Iron violating the 7 a.m.-9 p.m. work hours. (While shredder hours of operation are 7 a.m.-9 p.m., the company is permitted to operate other aspects of the business outside of those hours, Samborn said.)

On Wednesday, in response to the company’s statement, Clean The North Branch asked once more to meet General Iron’s new owners in person.

“Here are the facts people on the North Branch live with: Our air remains polluted, toxic fluff continues to fall, the stench is worse and our questions to GI remain unanswered,” the group wrote. “Come meet with us.”

Compton said many of the health and safety concerns would be mitigated if the company would do more to eliminate the community’s exposure to the fugitive dust.

“There are houses here from the 1800s,” she said. “It’s been a neighborhood for a very long time. [General Iron] just didn’t keep pace with the regulations and rules for facilities set forth by the EPA.”  

In the meantime, Compton hopes neighbors will continue to be vigilant.

By filing 311 reports, she said, neighbors can hold General Iron accountable. Neighbors can also file reports of fugitive dust sightings with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

RELATED:

Dec. 6, 2015 After Explosions at Extra-Alarm Scrap Yard Fire, Ald. Calls for Its Closure

Dec. 14, 2016 Metal Scrap Yard General Iron’s Future Uncertain After Extra-Alarm Fire

Feb. 2016 Metal Scrap Yard General Iron Faces Growing Backlash From Pols, Neighbors

April 2016 General Iron, Controversial Metal Scrap Yard, Shut Down By City 

July 2017 General Iron Owner Harassed Employees, Rejected $100M Offer For Land: Suit

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