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Lincoln Park, Old Town

City Will Shut Down General Iron Following Monday Explosion, Alderman Says

A Monday morning explosion sent a plume of smoke into the air and hazardous material response teams to the controversial metal-shredding plant.

Pieces of burnt and bent metal lay on the ground as fire crews were called to General Iron Industries in the 1900 north block of Clifton Avenue Monday after a major explosion, Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said on May 18, 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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LINCOLN PARK — The city’s Department of Buildings will shut down General Iron following an explosion at the plant, Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) said Monday in a newsletter to residents.

The order cannot be lifted until a “remediation and repair plan” at the plant at 1909 N. Clifton Ave. is approved, Smith said.

RELATED: Major Explosion At General Iron Scrap Plant Rocks Neighborhood, Company Suggests ‘Potential Sabotage’

Smith said she learned of the closure during a briefing with Mayor Lori Lightfoot and leaders from the Chicago Fire Department, the buildings department and the Chicago Department of Public Health.

During the briefing, Smith learned the initial explosion occurred in General Iron’s newly installed RTO (Regenerative Thermal Oxidizer). The heat was so intense that it flowed back to the initial point of entry, causing the doors of the building to burst and badly damaging the building, Smith said.

Mimi Simon, spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Buildings, said in a statement the emergency closing order was necessary because, “…the stability of the structures directly affected by the blasts is unknown, and conditions may be hazardous for any occupant or first responder at this time.”

You can read the city’s order here.

Ald. Smith said she was “assured” on the call that General Iron’s plan to cease operations by Dec. 31, 2020 is still in place.

During its closure, General Iron will be allowed to repair the damage to its buildings and equipment, said Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), who also participated in Monday’s briefing with officials.

“This HazMat explosion is one more in a disturbing series of events that indicate a permanent and immediate closure of this hazardous facility,” Hopkins said in a statement. “This should no longer be a point of debate and discussion. The thick cloud of smoke that drifted over our community in the aftermath of these latest explosions was a direct threat to our health and safety, exacerbated by the current pandemic.”

Smith said the explosion exemplified why Chicago needs a commitment to the North Branch Park & Preserve, a proposal to cap General Iron and convert the land to park space.

“The Chicago River belongs to all of us, not just private interests,” Smith said. “It is beyond time for this old, decaying facility to go, and to be replaced with a public park for all Chicagoans to enjoy the outdoors. In these times of pandemic, the need for public open space has been demonstrated more strongly than ever.”

At about 9:10 a.m. Monday, the explosion rocked the controversial metal-shredding plant on the banks of the Chicago River’s North Branch, sending a plume of smoke into the air and hazardous material response teams to the scene.

No one was hurt in the blast, officials said.

Chicago Fire Department spokesperson Larry Merritt said the explosion took place on the shredder’s conveyor system. Upon arrival, he said, firefighters tested the air quality and found “no apparent immediate health risk.”

The city’s public health department performed further testing and evaluation, Merritt said. 

“Should any environmental violation be determined, the city will issue citations immediately,” Merritt said. “Work at the site has stopped as a result of the incident and will not resume until the city has determined the cause of the explosion. The health and safety of Chicago’s residents remain a top priority, and we will continue to provide more information as details are gathered.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Pieces of burnt and bent metal lay on the ground as fire crews were called to General Iron Industries in the 1900 north block of Clifton Avenue Monday after a major explosion, Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said on May 18, 2020. | Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Gov. JB Pritzker said at an unrelated news conference Monday that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency also was looking into the explosion.

“We’re actually, as you can imagine, paying very close attention, want to make sure people are kept safe,” Pritzker said. 

Witnesses on the scene and blocks away reported two loud blasts in succession. Although there were initial reports of an ensuing fire, a spokesman for the company denied that.

What caused the blast wasn’t immediately clear, although the company spokesman raised the idea of “sabotage.”

“Shredding operations have ceased for the present time,” General Iron spokesman Randall Samborn said in a statement. “We are thoroughly investigating all possible causes, including potential sabotage. We are fully cooperating with city officials.”

He declined to elaborate on the sabotage suggestion, saying, “We have no further information to provide at this time and we’re not going to speculate. Suffice to say what happened this morning was not normal. We will conduct a thorough investigation that looks at all possibilities.”

Pollution from the plant has long been protested by Lincoln Park neighbors. General Iron is already slated to leave the neighborhood for the Far South Side’s East Side neighborhood. Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said he wanted it shut down now.

“Permanent and immediate closure of this hazardous facility is no longer a discussion point, it must happen NOW, by executive order,” Hopkins tweeted.

Albert Muniz, an employee of General Iron, told a Block Club reporter the explosions were simultaneous.”It felt like we were getting bombed,” Muniz said.

An employee of General Iron who asked not to be named told a Block Club reporter on the scene he heard two explosions, back to back.

“We might be unemployed now,” he said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/ Block Club Chicago
Fire crews were called to General Iron Monday after a “major explosion,” Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said.

General Iron plans to relocate to 11600 S. Burley Ave. by the end of the year. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency must first issue an “air pollution control construction permit,” which neighbors protested in a public meeting last week

On Monday, members of neighborhood groups Southeast Environmental Task Force and Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke issued a statement: “Don’t bring that mess down here.”

Last fall, General Iron promised Lightfoot and Hopkins 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. 

Lincoln Park neighbors have long complained about the health risks associated with fluff, a substance that routinely coats the neighborhood’s sidewalks, roads, porches and playgrounds. 

The Environmental Protection Agency defines fluff as “fugitive dust.” 

An air quality monitoring device is currently being used by Hopkins and neighbors to monitor the PM2.5 in the air near General Iron. You can see the ratings here.

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