EAST SIDE — City officials announced their air quality “reform agenda” Saturday in response to community concerns about General Iron, though many neighbors questioned whether more regulations are the answer to a company that has repeatedly run afoul of existing rules.
Chief sustainability officer Angela Tovar, appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot in June, introduced the reform agenda at a town hall on General Iron’s planned relocation to 11600 S. Burley Ave.
The city committed to strengthening the application process for environmental permits. Officials will introduce an ordinance requiring the city to consider an area’s existing air pollution burden, according to Tovar.
Also included in the agenda is the creation of an environmental equity advisory group made up of environmental justice advocates, experts and community stakeholders.
Tovar highlighted the city’s new rules for large recycling facilities, implemented in June as a “direct response” to neighbors’ overwhelming disapproval of General Iron’s planned move. Requirements include:
- Air impact and traffic studies
- Monitoring of particulate matter (dust) and real-time notification if an issue arises
- A plan to mitigate health impacts
- Noise impact assessment and monitoring
- Enclosure of the company’s metal shredder — the site of recent explosions — and of the “fluff” created by shredding operations
- Stricter recordkeeping
- Public notice and the opportunity for public comment on any changes to permits issued
Reserve Management Group has not yet applied for either of the two city permits it will need to merge General Iron with an existing East Side facility. RMG has promised city officials to leave the North Side by the end of the year.
Once applications are submitted, past violations like the city shutdown of the metal scrapper’s Lincoln Park site will be taken into consideration, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health.
“A permit can be denied … based on history of compliance or material threat to continued compliance,” a spokesperson confirmed to Block Club.
This is in contrast to Illinois regulators, who approved the move after repeatedly claiming they could not consider General Iron’s checkered past.
According to health commissioner Allison Arwady, the city’s permit review process cannot include:
- Emissions standards stricter than the state’s
- The collection of emissions data, which is the state’s responsibility
- General Iron’s closure unless there are documented violations of the law
Neighbors and community advocates questioned the purpose of additional regulations and the legitimacy of the public input process during the town hall’s comment session.
Even with stricter rules, East Siders have no reason to trust General Iron “will act safely or even comply with their permits” given the company’s history in Lincoln Park, said Nancy Loeb, director of Northwestern University’s Environmental Advocacy Center.
After Arwady said the health department “will add special conditions” to General Iron’s East Side permits, Loeb said the city was “treating this move like a train without brakes, letting it roll through and onto this community.”
“Transparency is not holding a meeting to tell the community that permits will be granted, when the applications have not even been filed yet,” Loeb said.
Fourth-generation Southeast Sider Ava Tomasula y Garcia also took issue with the city’s handling of neighbors’ concerns regarding the planned East Side move and the investigation into May’s explosions in Lincoln Park.
She criticized a July 17 closed-door meeting in which city officials reportedly laid out a path for the company to resume shredding on the North Side. Officials at the city, state and federal levels are not listening to concerned neighbors citywide, she said.
“I’m sick of public participation and review processes like this being completely meaningless,” Tomasula y Garcia said.
There is no formal requirement for public input to be gathered or considered during the permit review, according to a health department spokesperson.
RMG was not asked to participate in the town hall, spokesperson Randall Samborn said in a statement rebutting neighbors’ input.
“Unfortunately, there was no fact-checking, allowing misinformation, including that RMG has operated without proper permits, to spread and become even more entrenched,” Samborn said.
Other public comments disputed by the company included:
- Claims that General Iron has been cited more than 30 times for city health violations in recent months: No decision has yet been issued on the citations, according to Samborn. The company argues many of the alleged violations are invalid, claiming compliance with Illinois EPA regulations that override city code.
- The Burley Avenue facility’s proximity to George Washington elementary and high schools: “The actual distance is approximately 2,500 feet, which provides an expansive buffer from the schools and the nearest residences,” officials said.
- Claims that the company emits “dangerous and noxious pollution”: “Air emissions testing for the U.S. and Illinois EPA show that these claims are blatantly false,” as the company exceeds health-based standards, the statement reads.
Saturday’s meeting featured live English-Spanish translation. A common complaint regarding the Illinois EPA’s May 14 public hearings was the lack of Spanish notices about the meeting beforehand and a lack of translation during.
Two North Siders spoke Saturday, though officials hosting the meeting asked for 10th Ward residents’ input to be prioritized. A virtual town hall on General Iron’s North Side operation will be held next Monday.
Documents on General Iron’s planned move can be viewed on the city’s website.
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