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South Chicago, East Side

East Side Residents Urge EPA To Deny General Iron’s Permit To Build Scrap Plant

But regulators said public comments alone aren't enough to stop the permit.

General Iron's scrapyard
Alisa Hauser/ Block Club Chicago
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EAST SIDE — Despite an overwhelmingly negative public response to General Iron’s planned move to the East Side, state regulators told residents Thursday the scrap company’s construction permit can only be denied if it fails to comply with state and federal laws.

Neighbors of the proposed new location for the Lincoln Park company gathered online Thursday for two meetings held by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

General Iron plans to relocate to 11600 S. Burley Ave. by the end of the year. The IEPA must first issue an “air pollution control construction permit.”

The proposed East Side location lies within “an area of environmental justice concern” for state environmental regulators. It’s less than a half-mile from Rowan Park, and about two-thirds of a mile from George Washington elementary and high schools.

Public comments won’t stop the IEPA from issuing its permit unless a commenter can prove General Iron would violate emissions regulations upon moving.

“The Illinois EPA has no choice legally but to issue a construction permit to a source if the source will be in compliance with all state and federal air pollution control regulations,” IEPA permit manager Bob Bernoteit told residents in a prepared statement at both meetings.

However, “we will fully consider and respond to all significant public comments, and may make changes to the permit based upon the comments,” hearing officer Jeffrey Guy said.

Reserve Management Group owns General Iron, which is currently at 1909 N. Clifton Ave. in Lincoln Park. It neighbors the site of the $6 billion Lincoln Yards megadevelopment.

Last fall, General Iron promised Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) to leave the North Side.

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

The IEPA cannot take General Iron’s past violations into account while reviewing its permit application, agency lawyer Robb Layman said.

Two pieces of equipment were installed to limit pollution after the 2018 citation: A wet scrubber and a $2 million thermal oven. Both would be moved to the East Side, General Iron spokesperson Randall Samborn told Block Club in December.

During the two hearings Thursday, nearly 20 commenters spoke against issuing the permit, saying General Iron’s plans are a form of “environmental racism” considering the concentration of existing industry in the area. The East Side is 80 percent Hispanic.

Charles Stark is a biology teacher at George Washington High School, and he’s turned General Iron’s plans into a teaching opportunity. His students are learning about the harmful effects of the particulate matter emitted by the scrapper, like lung irritation, breathing trouble and lung cancer.

Prevailing winds will direct a majority of the plant’s emissions to the northeast — toward the school. That’s a problem, as Stark’s students already struggle with respiratory issues, he said.

One student “has been required to use her inhaler during [softball] practice on multiple occasions” at nearby Rowan Park, Stark said. “I think of this student as I imagine additional particulate matter being blown toward the school from this proposed scrap metal recycling plant.”

Rachel Vance moved to her “dream home” on the East Side in October 2014. The neighborhood is “absolutely amazing,” with easy access to bike trails, numerous parks and Lake Michigan, she said.

She became emotional as she reported test results of soil samples collected from her home and others around the S.H. Bell facility, which is a few minutes’ drive up Avenue O from the proposed General Iron site.

Vance’s yard showed lead levels twelve times higher than the federal cleanup standard. But the EPA could not clean up her yard, as only manganese was directly tied to S.H. Bell — the agency didn’t know “which one of the dozens of companies around here was responsible” for the lead contamination, she said.

With that experience, she said she is “afraid” of letting yet another polluter “threaten the life of my son and my nieces.”

“It’s hard enough to breathe in this neighborhood without another pollutant,” Vance said.

Written comments must be emailed to hearing officer Jeffrey Guy by June 13. A final decision is expected by June 25.

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