Skip to contents
South Chicago, East Side

Lawsuit Accuses City Of ‘Environmental Racism,’ Seeks To Stop General Iron’s Owner From Getting Permit For East Side Scrapper

"The judge will determine where we will go from here, but we have no choice," the attorney filing the suit said. "We either fight or just roll over and play dead. And we chose to fight."

The General Iron Industries in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago seen in April 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
  • Credibility:

EAST SIDE — Two South Side ministers filed a lawsuit in federal court Wednesday seeking to block General Iron’s owner from receiving the recycling facility permit it needs to move the metal scrapper’s equipment and open up shop as “Southside Recycling” in East Side.

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois Wednesday afternoon, alleges Mayor Lori Lightfoot and public health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady “engaged in environmental racism” by quietly issuing a permit in September.

The permit allowed General Iron’s owner Reserve Management Group to move the scrapper’s equipment to a site at 11600 S. Burley Ave. Health officials failed to honor their promise to post “all documents related to this process” on a dedicated RMG expansion website, and notify neighbors when the company applied for its permit.

Pastors Richard Martinez of the Nehemiah Family Fellowship Church, 10950 S. Avenue C, about one mile from the planned shredder; and Roosevelt Watkins III, pastor of Bethlehem Star Missionary Baptist Church, 9231 S. Cottage Grove Ave., are the plantiffs.

They’re calling for an injunction to block any further permits allowing Southside Recycling’s operation from being issued.

“The judge will determine where we will go from here, but we have no choice,” attorney Victor Henderson told Block Club. “We either fight or just roll over and play dead. And we chose to fight.”

The Mayor’s Office and the city’s Department of Public Health directed questions to the city’s Law Department.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Law Department said the city had no immediate comment “other than that we will review the lawsuit and respond in due course.”

RMG had not filed its application for a recycling facility permit as of Wednesday evening, according to a health department spokesperson.

The suit also alleges years of campaign contributions to City Council committee chairs from General Iron and the Labkon family, the scrapper’s former owner, have “cleared the way” for the city to approve RMG’s plans.

Henderson did not answer whether the plaintiffs currently have evidence of a direct link between campaign contributions to key aldermen and the Chicago Department of Public Health’s approval of an air pollution control permit in September.

He hopes that “the lawsuit will enable us to get to as much of the bottom of it as we can,” he said. “We know what we see on the surface. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.”

RMG spokesman Randall Samborn said the lawsuit contains “baseless claims about the company’s environmental impact and engaging in some sort of ‘pay-to-pollute’ scheme.”

General Iron’s interactions with city officials, under the Labkon family and RMG, “have been proper and transparent,” he said.

General Iron currently neighbors the site of the $6 billion Lincoln Yards megadevelopment in Lincoln Park on the city’s North Side. The planned Burley Avenue site is blocks from George Washington elementary and high schools in East Side, a majority-Latino, environmental justice community on the city’s South Side.

“Simply put: The South Side gets the scrap yard, the North Side gets Lincoln Yards,” Watkins said in a statement.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the city’s dedicated RMG website said officials “have not received a completed application for a recycling facility permit,” though it’s unclear when the site was last updated.

City officials have pledged to notify the public and post the application to the website when RMG applies.

The city’s and RMG’s position that General Iron is not moving to the Southeast Side — even though its essential equipment and employees are — should have no impact on the case, Henderson said.

“That’s a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing argument,” Henderson said. “They’re one and the same.”

The ministers’ lawsuit is separate from a civil rights complaint filed against the city in August by Southeast Side environmental activists.

Officials with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development confirmed Oct. 2 they are investigating the civil rights complaint, which alleges the city deepened housing segregation by allowing polluting industry to cluster on the Southeast Side over decades.

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

Federal officials must complete their investigation — or notify the activists why it has not been completed — by Jan. 10.

Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Already subscribe? Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation.