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South Chicago, East Side

Decades Of Racist City Policies Pushed Polluters To The Southeast Side, Residents Say — And Feds Should Investigate

The city's push to allow General Iron to move from Lincoln Park to East Side triggered a federal complaint from environmental activists.

General Iron Industries in Lincoln Park on May 14, 2020, in Chicago.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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EAST SIDE — Environmental activists filed a federal civil rights complaint against the city Wednesday arguing the city deepened housing segregation by allowing polluting industry to cluster on the Southeast Side over decades.

The Fair Housing Act complaint, filed with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, alleges the city is engaging in “intentional discrimination against protected classes” by concentrating industry on the Southeast Side and in other low-income communities of color.

“From petcoke to manganese to the smell of nearby landfills, it seems like we are constantly fighting for our health, and it’s exhausting,” Marcie Pedraza of the Southeast Environmental Task Force said at a press conference Thursday. “The South and West sides of the city carry this burden much more than the affluent North Side.”

The complaint was triggered by the city’s September 2019 agreement to facilitate General Iron’s move from Lincoln Park.

The controversial metal scrapper currently neighbors the site of the $6 billion Lincoln Yards megadevelopment and plans to move to 11600 S. Burley Ave., blocks from George Washington elementary and high schools.

The city’s General Iron deal sparked the complaint, as all Fair Housing Act complaints must address be filed within one year of a specific incident of alleged housing discrimination.

But the complaint’s intent is broader than any one company, activists said. It aims to go beyond address unequal burdens of pollution and industry in neighborhoods across the city.

The South and West sides “cannot be dumping grounds for the city’s garbage,” said Nancy Loeb, director of Northwestern University’s Environmental Advocacy Center. The city must stop “favoring” wealthy, white communities in its land use decisions.

The complaint will not seek action against industrial facilities already operating on the Southeast Side. It’s “more about forward-looking reform than it is about the status of any existing entity,” said Keith Harley, an attorney with the Greater Chicago Legal Clinic.

Activists said they are not aware of past cases that have used the Fair Housing Act to address environmental racism, but nevertheless feel they have “a really strong case” in filing the complaint.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency issued permits for General Iron’s planned move in June, despite East Siders’ overwhelming disapproval. With the state’s go-ahead, the scrapper must now receive two city permits before moving.

In a report last month, the Chicago Department of Public Health found that “low-income, Black and Latinx communities on the South and West Sides carry a disproportionate amount” of the city’s pollution burden, which has contributed to social and health inequities, a spokesperson for Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement.

The city’s environmental “reform agenda,” announced in July in response to community concerns about General Iron’s plans, “is the first step toward addressing our city’s long-standing issues related to environmental justice.”

“The City of Chicago takes very seriously the issues of environmental discrimination and segregation, as raised in the Fair Housing Act discrimination complaint,” the statement reads. The reform agenda “is one of many initiatives aimed at improving our residents’ health and quality of life.”

Chief sustainability officer Angela Tovar committed to strengthening the permit application process and announced the creation of an environmental equity advisory group at a July 25 town hall.

Tovar highlighted the city’s new rules for large recycling facilities, implemented in June as a “direct response” to neighbors’ displeasure.

In issuing its permits, state regulators said they could only strengthen requirements in response to negative feedback, not deny permits outright. Requirements in the final permit include:

  • “Extensive” initial and follow-up emissions testing
  • Limitations on emissions and hours of operation
  • Installation and operation of emissions monitoring devices
  • Requirements to prevent explosions in the pollution-limiting equipment that was the site of explosions at the scrapper’s Lincoln Park facility

Within weeks, corporate owner Reserve Management Group appealed some of the requirements.

RMG officials claimed the state lacks authority to require extensive emissions testing every five years, among other complaints. They asked the state to lift the disputed requirements pending the results of the appeal.

“The final permit included significant changes to the draft permit in response to public input in order to enhance the permit,” the appeal reads. “These changes exceed the applicable regulatory requirements for a minor source facility.”

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