LINCOLN PARK — After the demolition of a Crawford Coal smokestack blanketed Little Village with a cloud of thick dust last weekend, Lincoln Park neighbors and aldermen are calling on Mayor Lori Lightfoot to shut down General Iron for good.
On Saturday, Hilco Redevelopment Partners and its contractor imploded a century-old smokestack in Little Village, coating the mostly-Latino neighborhood on the city’s Southwest Side in dust.
“We get more notification with street cleaning, honestly,” one neighbor said of the Little Village incident. “Would this be happening in Lincoln Park or Lincoln Square? …I doubt it.”
But Lincoln Parkers say scrap metal shredder General Iron, 1909 N. Clifton Ave., has been allowed to continue work during a respiratory pandemic — sending a dust called “fluff” into the air. Unlike the Little Village dust, fluff is less visible from a distance. But in both situations, neighbors have no idea what toxins are inside that dust.
“It’s important to stress that some of the more harmful dust particles are too small to be seen,” Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said. “While the dust [in Little Village] creates a dramatic visual, it’s the dust you can’t see that’s most harmful. That’s what we’re measuring [near General Iron].”
After seeing Mayor Lori Lightfoot slam Hilco’s handling of the Little Village demolition, neighbor Lara Compton said she hoped Lightfoot would “stop the madness” and shut General Iron down as well.
“I feel like every time we take two steps forward we take ten steps backward in getting any kind of understanding of what’s happening here,” she said. “Somehow liquor is getting curfews, but these polluters are not.”
Hopkins said he has been pushing Lightfoot to shut the facility down for weeks. On Monday, he said he hoped the Crawford Coal incident would convince the mayor to finally pull the plug.
“For the respiratory heath of everyone who lives near General Iron, they need to be ordered to cease operations immediately,” he said. “It needs to happen tomorrow.”
Hopkins said the air quality monitoring device being used in Little Village is the same one he’s been using for the last year to test air quality around General Iron.
When the metal scrapper is operating, the air ratings spike into either the yellow or red zones, Hopkins said. When the facility is closed, the rating index is green. You can see the ratings near General Iron here.
This data is supplemented by “stream monitors,” which are used to test the air for PM2.5 — the particle matter that creates “fluff.”
Neighbors have long complained about the health risks associated with “fluff,” a substance that originates from General Iron and routinely coats the neighborhood’s sidewalks, roads, porches and playgrounds.
The Environmental Protection Agency defines fluff as “fugitive dust.” In 2018, the EPA cited General Iron after inspectors found fugitive dust outside the shredder site. The EPA later dropped the citation.
In early March neighbors called on the EPA to conduct a new study.
PM2.5 can worsen asthma and other underlying respiratory conditions known to be co-morbidities for COVID-19, Hopkins said.
On Sunday, when the air ratings in Lincoln Park were in the green zone, Compton put on her gardening gloves and began planting boxes of colorful pansies and laying fresh mulch.
She was interrupted, however, by having to remove handfuls of “fluff” from her sidewalk.
Compton and her 8-year-old daughter have asthma and her husband has Type 1 Diabetes. Both conditions are known to be co-morbidities associated with the coronavirus.
The family’s 8- and 4-year-old children are not allowed to leave the home until General Iron ceases shredding operations, which is usually around 7 p.m. work nights.
General Iron plans to close its operation by the end of 2020 and move to the Southeast Side. Its new home, 11600 S. Burley Ave., is steps from the home of Gina Ramirez, a longtime Southeast Side resident and the co-chair of the Southeast Side Coalition To Ban Petcoke.
In addition to shutting General Iron for good, Ramirez said she hoped the Crawford Coal situation would convince city leaders to listen to neighbors, not corporate executives, when making decisions regarding work permits.
“The city was believing everything Hilco was saying, and look what happened,” she said. “It looks like a bomb dropped. It’s heartbreaking.”
Hopkins said he will continue to pressure Lightfoot.
“Right after the immediate dust settles, no pun intended, there will be no more blowing up smoke stacks [in Little Village], that’s done,” Hopkins said. “General Iron is still crushing cars. … That’s not done. It’s happening.”
Located along the Chicago River, General Iron is currently deemed an “essential business” by Gov. JB Pritzker’s stay-at-home order.
Steve Joseph, CEO of Reserve Management Group, wrote in a letter to city officials that his company fits “squarely” into Pritzker’s qualifications because General Iron provides an essential service by recycling 740,000 tons of metal each year.
Read Joseph’s three-page letter to the city here.
Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.