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Lincoln Park, Old Town

General Iron’s Potential Reopening A ‘Final Insult’ To Lincoln Park Neighbors, Alderman Says

Final inspections before General Iron's reopening should "happen within a matter of days," said Dr. Alison Arwady, head of Chicago's Department of Public Health.

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 — General Iron’s North Side facility could fully reopen within days of passing its final city inspections, officials said Monday.

Explosions led to the shut down of General Iron’s metal-shredding operations in May. But Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the city’s public health department, told residents in a Monday town hall the Lincoln Park site can resume normal operations once her agency, the fire department and the city’s department of buildings all evaluate the facility.

“I would expect (the inspections) to happen within a matter of days,” she said.

Arwady also said new city rules requiring large recycling facilities to adhere to tougher environmental guidelines would not apply to the metal-shredding operations until General Iron moves into RMG’s South Side facility in the East Side neighborhood.

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), a vocal opponent of General Iron’s local operations, said its reopening is a “final insult” to the community before the shredder ultimately closes the plant by the end of the year, as it has promised.

“On the way out the door as they leave this neighborhood, they need to operate five more months under the old rules, emitting toxic fumes, smells and odors,” Hopkins said.

He said the city’s report on the explosions — which were determined to have occurred in the site’s regenerative thermal oxidizer, a $2 million piece of equipment that breaks down hazardous air pollutants — focused only on the blasts and not the daily environmental impacts of General Iron’s operations.

“Can they go the next five months without blowing anything up again? Yes they probably can. But that doesn’t mean it’s safe to operate,” Hopkins said.

General Iron hired independent consultant Exponent to investigate the explosions and recommend fixes.

Joe Jaskulski, a mechanical engineer consultant hired by the city to observe that investigation, said the scrap metal shredder installed a new combustible gas monitor and diverter valve to prevent more explosions.

“My conclusion after detailed review is the appropriate controls are in place to prevent a recurrence,” Jaskulski said. “And based on this and the facts of the explosion alone, there’s no reason to object to the facility resuming shredding-related operations.”

Neighbors of the Lincoln Park site said they were skeptical General Iron could resume metal shredding safely. They’ve long contended the fluff, or “fugitive dust,” that blows from the facility could be toxic.

Arwady said the health department issued 11 citations against General Iron from December 2019 through March from complaints, including strong odors, dust and the off-site fibers.

Although Arwady recognized it’s a nuisance, she said the fluff — which comes from the process of removing non-recyclable materials like dirt, glass, fibers and rubber from cars before shredding — is not proven to be hazardous.

“These sorts of materials are very unlikely to have negative significant human health risks,” Arwady said. “The things that are more concerning have been pulled out in the recycling process.”

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), said General Iron has been “a very bad neighbor for a very long time” and asked for the city to release more information certifying the fluff is not hazardous.

Randall Samborn, a spokesman for General Iron, said Friday the scrap metal shredder has installed water misters and netting to reduce dust, pollutants and the fluff that emanates from the facility.

“We’re ready,” Samborn said. “We’re anxious to resume shredding as soon as possible. … All repairs and modifications have been completed.”

General Iron will close its Lincoln Park facility by the end of 2020, per an agreement with Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The shredder plans to relocate to 11600 S. Burley Ave. on the city’s far South Side, over fierce opposition from residents and environmental activists.

Documents on General Iron’s planned move can be viewed on the city’s website.

Timeline at General Iron:

  • March 26Neighbors 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 17: City officials hold closed-door meeting to discuss General Iron
  • July 27: City unveils environmental “reform agenda” for General Iron
  • July 31: The city publishes two reports from outside consultants investigating the explosion

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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