LINCOLN PARK — Environmental activists are calling on the city to stop General Iron’s Lincoln Park scrapyard from fully reopening during the coronavirus pandemic after city officials laid out a path for the company to resume operations during a closed meeting last week.
Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), who was at the closed-door meeting Friday, said it seemed “highly probable that General Iron will be able to get the clearance needed to reopen,” pending proper permitting and an investigation into explosions at the site.
Neighbors of the Lincoln Park site will host a Tuesday press conference to call on the city to back a citizen resolution to keep the scrapyard closed.
They’ll be joined by environmental activists from Clean the North Branch, Illinois State Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago) and Kiana Courtney of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.
Clean the North Branch members who learned about the meeting said the city needs to stop General Iron from reopening.
“General Iron has proven time and time again it is unwilling and unable to follow the rules,” the group said in an emailed statement. “Enough is enough.”
General Iron spokesman Randall Samborn declined to comment Monday.
The dual explosions in May are believed to have originated in the facility regenerative thermal oxidizer, a piece of air pollution control equipment designed to decompose hazardous air pollutants.
The Lincoln Park facility was entirely shut down after that due to the “immediate danger” posed by the site.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot would not commit to keeping the scrapper closed during the pandemic, despite pleas from neighbors and local activists.
The city’s building and fire departments allowed General Iron to partially resume operations June 24. Five days later, and without input from Hopkins, the site had resumed its non-shredding services under the modified closure order.
A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office said the meeting was held with aldermen and various city department representatives to discuss General Iron’s modified closure and permitting process for its planned expansion into the East Side neighborhood.
According to the Mayor’s Office, the city will hold a public hearing about the East Side expansion before approving General Iron’s final permits for the project. The company will also need to submit applications for air and recycling permits before it can reopen the expanded site.
The Lincoln Park site’s reopening wouldn’t happen until after the city’s investigation into the two General Iron explosions, the Mayor’s Office said.
“It is important to note that the city is still awaiting results of the investigation into two unexpected explosions at General Iron’s North Side facility earlier this year, and no decision on the reopening of that facility will be made in advance of a robust review,” the Mayor’s Office said.
Hopkins, who has repeatedly opposed allowing General Iron to resume shredding, said results from the city’s investigation into the explosions could provide new basis to argue that it shouldn’t reopen.
“That report will provide some conclusions with the cause of the explosion, and depending on what those conclusions are, we may have the grounds to insist they don’t reopen because they might not be able to do so safely,” Hopkins said.
In a joint statement, Clean the North Branch activists Lara Compton and Amy Genender said General Iron’s scrapyard operations threaten neighbors’ health and could make them more susceptible to coronavirus infection.
“This city has put a notorious polluter ahead of residents’ health during the COVID-19 respiratory pandemic,” the two said. “The mayor talked about ‘bringing in the light.’ It’s time to make good on that promise by nixing this deal.”
Serap Erdal, an environmental physics professor at University of Illinois at Chicago who specializes in air quality, said there is growing evidence air pollution can be a risk factor for catching COVID-19, but more data is needed before a link can be drawn.
Erdal said she is part of a joint team between UIC and the University of Chicago that will research the relationship between air pollution levels and the coronavirus outbreak in Chicago.
“The Chicago Center for Health and Environment funded us to look at this question, particularly in the presence of the fact that we had a significant air pollution episode in the midst of the pandemic, which was the implosion of an old smokestack in Little Village.”
Timeline at General Iron:
- March 26: Neighbors call on Gov. JB Pritzker to remove General Iron from the list of “essential businesses” allowed to operate during the stay at home order.
- April 15: Neighbors ask Lightfoot to close General Iron during the pandemic: “It’s absurd that during this crisis we all try to protect the most vulnerable members of our community from the effects of a still largely uncontrolled and unknown disease. While at the same time, a well known and controllable risk factor continues to operate as an essential business at extended hours despite repeated violations.”
- May 18: An early morning explosion at General Iron sends two “booms” through the neighborhood and destroys a $2 million piece of equipment that brought General Iron into compliance. The Fire Department begins an investigation: “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,” a spokesman said.
- May 20: Lincoln Park neighbors introduce a “citizen resolution” to City Council asking for Lightfoot to order the scrapyard closed through the pandemic. Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) signs on as co-sponsor. The resolution is ignored.
- June 24: City officials quietly allow General Iron to partially resume operations in Lincoln Park.
- June 25: After months of opposition, Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration approves General Iron’s move to East Side.
- July 1: Mayor Lori Lightfoot won’t publicly commit to an executive order keeping the plant closed: “We’re still in the midst of doing our investigation. Once that investigation is complete, we will issue a report that will be public, and then we’ll go from there.”
- July 8: The city modifies General Iron’s closure order, allowing its Lincoln Park site to resume non-shredding operations. An investigation into the two explosions continues.
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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