LINCOLN PARK — Environmental activists and neighbors of General Iron’s Lincoln Park scrapyard are urging city leaders to back an ordinance that would stop the company from operating in Chicago during the coronavirus pandemic.
In a press conference Tuesday, activists from Clean the North Branch responded to a closed-door meeting last week, during which city officials laid out a path for General Iron to resume operations, pending proper permitting and an investigation into explosions at the site.
“The city is signaling it will not stand in General Iron’s way,” said Lara Compton, a neighbor and Clean the North Branch organizer. “We can shut down bars in Chicago not once, but twice, but we can’t shut down serial polluters during a respiratory pandemic?”
The city shut down General Iron’s scrapyard in Lincoln Park in May after two explosions believed to have originated in the facility’s regenerative thermal oxidizer, a piece of air pollution control equipment that decomposes hazardous pollutants.
But Mayor Lori Lightfoot would not commit to keeping the scrapper closed during the coronavirus pandemic. The city allowed General Iron to resume its non-shredding operations on June 24 under a modified closure order.
The site resumed work June 29. Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), who has repeatedly opposed General Iron’s shredding operations, said he was not consulted about reopening the location.
The activists repeated demands that Chicago’s City Council support a citizen’s resolution keeping the scrapper closed until the city reaches Phase 5 of its coronavirus recovery, and stopping General Iron from relocating operations to the East Side neighborhood. Hopkins has backed the resolution.
“We need our elected officials to put citizens and their health ahead of polluters,” Compton said. “We shouldn’t have to fight this hard for access to clean air or our health.”
General Iron spokesman Randall Samborn said the North Side facility has implemented new safety measures since the explosions that would prevent them from happening again.
“With additional safety measures engineered to prevent a repeat of the explosion that occurred in May, we are looking forward to receiving all necessary approvals, and meeting the high standards of accountability that are being set, to resume full operations,” Samborn said in an emailed statement.
Reserve Management Group, which owns General Iron, has committed to leaving Lincoln Park by the end of the year. It plans to expand its recycling facility in East Side and move General Iron’s operations there.
Permits for General Iron’s move were approved by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency last month.
Illinois EPA officials repeatedly said they could not consider General Iron’s past violations during the permit review process. Environmental groups rejected this claim, citing state law that says permit conditions may be “specifically related to the applicant’s past compliance history.”
Illinois State Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago) opposes General Iron’s move to the South Side.
“It’s not just about the operations and how they do or do not comply with a strict set of guidelines,” Williams said Tuesday. “We need to look at the big picture to make sure we are protecting all Chicago residents moving forward.
“Everyone deserves to breathe clean air, especially during a pandemic.”
A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office said Monday the city will hold a public hearing about the East Side expansion before approving General Iron’s final permits for the project.
“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 spokesperson said in a statement.
Hopkins, who was in the closed meeting last week, said results from the investigation could provide new basis to argue the plant 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 an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), whose ward includes neighbors of the Lincoln Park scrapyard, said he “wants it shut down as soon as legally possible.”
Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), who also represents neighbors of General Iron’s North Side facility, said residents need more information on the scrapyard’s operations.
“I call on the city to release all the information they have at a public meeting,” Smith said. “General Iron needs to be shut down as soon as legal and feasible.
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.
- July 20: Ald. Hopkins says it’s “highly probable” the Lincoln Park site will be allowed to reopen, after city officials detailed a plan for the location to full resume operations.
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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