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South Chicago, East Side

City Says Federal Probe Into East Side Metal Scrapper Permit Has Its ‘Full Support’ Despite Rejecting Prior Discrimination Investigation

City officials have downplayed a civil rights complaint filed by Southeast Siders and rebuffed requests from a federal department to delay Southside Recycling's permit review. Now city lawyers are telling the feds following civil rights laws "is of great importance."

The sun sets over the planned location for Southside Recycling, 11600 S. Burley Ave. on Feb. 22, 2021. Three Reserve Management Group recycling facilities currently operate at the East Side site.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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EAST SIDE — The city Law Department offered its “full support and cooperation” for a federal investigation into Illinois’ approval of a metal scrapper in the Southeast Side, but those same officials remained quiet on a separate probe into city policies allowing heavy industry to cluster in the area.

Southside Recycling, owned by General Iron’s parent company Reserve Management Group, received a permit from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency in its bid to open at 11600 S. Burley Ave. in East Side.

The federal EPA is investigating the state’s decision following a discrimination complaint filed by Southeast Side activists.

Southside Recycling still needs a city-approved operating permit, which is pending. As the Chicago Department of Public Health reviews Southside Recycling’s application, determining the validity of the state permit is crucial, John L. Hendricks, Chicago deputy corporation counsel, wrote the federal officials Thursday.

Hendricks requested federal officials confirm they are investigating the state EPA, provide a timeline for their investigation and share whether they’ll request a delay in the city’s permit review.

“Maintaining compliance with federal civil rights laws is of great importance to the city of Chicago and therefore, we want to ensure that the [health department’s] permitting review is not in conflict with any U.S. EPA review,” Hendricks wrote.

Southside Recycling attorney David Chizewer pushed back and said federal officials have no recourse to revoke the permit. Federal guidelines say issued permits are not suspended or revoked once a civil rights investigation begins.

If the Illinois EPA is found to have discriminated against Black and Latino Southeast Siders in granting Southside Recycling’s permit, federal regulations guiding the investigation only speak to the U.S. EPA’s power to end its assistance to state programs, not rescind permits.

In his own letter Friday, Chizewer called on the U.S. EPA to “respond promptly to Mr. Hendricks’s letter, explaining that the [civil rights] complaint will not affect” the state permit.

RMG’s controversial move to open in East Side would shift the majority of employees and essential equipment from General Iron’s defunct site in Lincoln Park to the Burley Avenue location. Community leaders and activists have fiercely opposed it, citing General Iron’s history of violations on the North Side and the neighborhood’s designation as “an area of environmental justice concern.”

The effort to block Southside Recycling from opening has spurred two federal investigations and a federal lawsuit. Pushback has intensified in recent weeks, with a hunger strike demanding the city refuse to issue RMG an operating permit, an action that has generated support from elected officials and local educators.

The city’s permit review “will continue for some time” as officials review RMG’s updated application, refiled after the city found nearly three dozen deficiencies in the original submission, Hendricks said.

Court documents filed in a lawsuit accusing the city of environmental racism and seeking to block Southside Recycling’s permit show the city will not issue a permit before March 1.

If officials review RMG’s application and issue a draft permit, the health department
would begin a 30-day comment period which could lead to further changes, Hendricks wrote.

The city’s letter does not address a separate investigation underway by federal prosecutors and housing officials into the city’s zoning practices, triggered by a civil rights complaint filed by Southeast Side residents last year.

City lawyers called the fair housing complaint “unfounded” after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requested the city withhold Southside Recycling’s operating permit until the complaint could be mediated.

The Law Department declined comment on the housing investigation because it is ongoing, city spokeswoman Jordan Troy said.

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