CHICAGO — The city has fined General Iron $6,000 after there were two explosions at the metal-recycling plant Monday.
General Iron was cited for violating state pollution standards during the explosions. The Chicago Department of Public Health is also installing air quality monitors so it can see if any “harmful substances” were emitted during the explosions “and to more closely monitor the air going forward,” according to a press release.
Earlier this week, the city indefinitely shut down the plant at 1909 N. Clifton Ave. An investigation into the explosions is ongoing.
Monday’s explosion, believed to have originated in the shredder’s conveyor system, created two loud “booms” and sent a plume of smoke into the air, neighbors and General Iron employees said.
Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) celebrated the decision from Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Buildings Commissioner Judith Frydland to close the plant, which the aldermen contend poses a grave pollution hazard to the community — especially during a respiratory pandemic.
“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,” Hopkins said.
The closure order cannot be lifted until a “remediation and repair plan” at the plant is approved, Smith said. Some neighbors worried this meant General Iron would soon be able to reopen with little oversight.
“This is a pause, not a shutdown,” Clean the North Branch, a neighborhood organization, wrote in a tweet.
“Neighbors are still concerned that it is just temporary and that General Iron will find some loophole,” neighbor Lara Compton said. “We want to make sure they can’t get another pass to pollute.”
For now, it’s unclear what will happen to the thousands of pounds of scrap metal still being collected during the closure.
General Iron spokesman Randall Samborn said the company was investigating the explosion in coordination with officials.
“We are thankful that no one was injured but the reality is that the damage was severe enough that we are unable to operate until sufficient repairs are made,” he said.
He continued, “The fact remains that no other local recycling facility can match General’s Iron’s capacity to handle the Chicago area’s volume of recyclable metal or has pollution control equipment that is the best available technology and ensures the lowest emissions rates.”
Long owned by the Labkon family, General Iron sold last year to Reserve Management Group, a specialist in recycling and scrap metal processing with operations in nine states.
In March, Steve Joseph, CEO of RMG, wrote in a letter to city officials that his company fit “squarely” into Gov. JB Pritzker’s qualifications for essential businesses. General Iron recycles 740,000 tons of metal each year, he said.
Last fall, General Iron promised Lightfoot and Hopkins it would leave the North Side.
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 evaluate the air near General Iron. See the ratings here.
In 2021, RMG plans to move the plant from Lincoln Park to 11600 S. Burley Ave. on the Far South Side. Neighbors there have protested the move, saying it will bring more pollution to their neighborhood.
The proposed location lies within “an area of environmental justice concern” for state environmental regulators.
Before the move can be made, General Iron must secure an “air pollution control construction permit” from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency — a process neighbors opposed during a public hearing last week.
The environmental equipment the company has said it plans to bring to the new location includes a $2 million “regenerative thermal oxidizer” that burns or bakes away emissions.
Smith, the Lincoln Park alderman, said this piece of equipment was involved in Monday’s explosion.
The heat was so intense within the oxidizer that it flowed back to the initial point of entry, causing the doors of the building to burst, Smith said.
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