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South Chicago, East Side

City Officials Quietly Approve East Side Permit For General Iron Owner — Breaking Promise To Alert Public

RMG, General Iron's owner, received the first of two permits it will need to move its metal recycling equipment and most current employees and begin operating on the Southeast Side as "Southside Recycling."

Scrap metal is brought to General Iron Industries’ Lincoln Park facility on Friday, August 14, 2020. | Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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EAST SIDE — City officials have granted one of the two required permits for the owner of General Iron to move the metal scrapper’s “most critical” equipment to East Side, giving no public notice as leaders previously pledged to do.

The air pollution control permit does not allow Reserve Management Group (RMG) to immediately begin operating as “Southside Recycling” at 11600 S. Burley Ave., but it allows the company to install essential equipment in anticipation of final approval.

About 20 people — including Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) — found out about the permit from an email sent by the Chicago Department of Public Health on Wednesday.

Health department liaison Ivonne Sambolin wrote in the email recycling operations can only begin if the city issues a Class IVB recycling facility permit.

The health department has not yet received RMG’s application for the recycling facility permit, a spokesperson said Friday.

RMG spokesperson Randall Samborn declined to comment on the air pollution control permit’s issuance, saying “any public information about the permit or process rests with the city of Chicago to disclose.”

Sadlowski Garza confirmed she first learned of the permit’s issuance in Wednesday’s email and has not yet notified ward residents because she needed “to be more well-versed” in what the permit actually means before doing so.

She said she is scheduled to meet with city officials on the issue Friday afternoon.

During a town hall in July, public health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the city would post “all documents related to this process” on its dedicated RMG expansion website, and would notify neighbors when the company applied for its permit and when documents were available to review.

Arwady’s commitment to notify the public upon receipt of permit applications is not reflected in the meeting minutes. A recording of the meeting of the town hall is not available due to technical difficulties, according to the city.

As of Friday afternoon, the only available documents were the presentation and minutes from the town hall, a fact sheet on the proposed expansion and RMG’s full proposal for the site.

“When we do receive a completed application [for the second permit], we will then share that information with community stakeholders, post it to the microsite and work to gather feedback,” a health department spokesperson said Friday.

Environmental justice groups have called on the city to stop RMG’s move to the East Side, citing pollution concerns voiced by Lincoln Park residents who have lived near the scrapper for decades.

General Iron has been operating at full capacity in Lincoln Park since early August, after passing the city’s inspections following an investigation into explosions on-site in May, according to Samborn.

What’s in a name?

At a “Lens on Lightfoot” virtual town hall with Chicago reporters Tuesday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot decried the “inaccurate” media portrayal that General Iron itself is moving to the East Side.

The mayor’s comments signify “she understands it; she gets it,” Samborn said.

The machinery that’s “most critical” to General Iron’s Lincoln Park operations — such as the regenerative thermal oxidizer that was the site of May’s explosions — will make the move to the Burley Avenue site, he said.

Existing General Iron employees and management will be offered the chance to work at the new location, which will do business as “Southside Recycling,” as well.

But the Labkon family’s sale of General Iron to RMG and site improvements to the planned East Side facility — such as making the metal shredder more fully enclosed to contain dust and noise — are among the reasons it’s inaccurate to say General Iron is moving to the East Side, Samborn said.

“General Iron is closing at the end of this year, and RMG is constructing a new metal recycling facility to fill the void that will be created by General Iron’s closing,” Samborn said by email Friday.

“There’s a tendency, especially in the media, to accept the narrative that’s been advanced by groups and individuals that don’t want to pay attention to what the facts are,” he said in a follow-up phone interview. “We’re not in the street shouting that they’re wrong, but they’re not right.”

Samborn did not directly answer a question about whether RMG is seeking to distance itself from General Iron’s checkered past, saying, “I’m just telling you what the facts are.”

It’s all semantics, critics say. General Iron’s most vital equipment, staff and mission — to recycle metal — will all be part of Southside Recycling, even if it’s called something else.

RMG is “spinning the narrative” to say General Iron isn’t moving, said Gina Ramirez, Midwest outreach manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Ramirez also received Wednesday’s email from the city confirming the permit was issued.

Even then, Ramirez said environmental groups were notified about the permit because they asked the city about the status of RMG’s applications. Officials aren’t “preemptively reaching out” as they vowed to do, Ramirez said.

She criticized the city’s “lack of communication with the community,” though she said she wasn’t completely shocked.

“We expressed our disappointment, and I feel like the city is continuing to leave the residents of the Southeast Side in the dark,” Ramirez said. “There’s no transparency in this process and it’s really disappointing.”

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