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South Chicago, East Side

City Violated Civil Rights Of Black, Latino Chicagoans By Pushing Polluters Into Their Neighborhoods, Feds Say

The city's "driving role" in facilitating General Iron's exit from Lincoln Park benefited the mostly white community at Black and Latino South Siders' expense, federal officials said.

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 continued a “discriminatory” pattern of moving polluters from white communities to Black and Latino neighborhoods by helping General Iron in its attempt to relocate from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side, federal housing officials said Tuesday.

Now, Chicago could be cut off from hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding if city officials do not change their policies to align with national civil rights law.

Following a nearly two-year investigation, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determined city officials “discriminated on the basis of race and national origin” as they clustered polluting industry in nonwhite communities, federal officials wrote Tuesday to Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Southeast Side environmental groups. The Sun-Times first reported on the letter.

The investigation also found city officials: 

  • Made General Iron close its facility in the mostly white Lincoln Park neighborhood
  • Facilitated General Iron’s plans to move to the mostly Black and Latino Southeast Side
  • Knew the move would negatively impact Southeast Side neighborhoods, but “pushed ahead with the relocation nonetheless”
  • Ignored their own environmental justice initiatives
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Reserve Management Group sought to move its Lincoln Park operations to 11600 S. Burley Ave., under the name Southside Recycling. The city denied the company a permit to open in February 2022.

Southeast Side environmental activists kicked off the investigation by filing a complaint with federal housing officials in 2020, alleging decades of racist city policies pushed polluters into their community. Three groups were behind the complaint: The Southeast Environmental Task Force, People for Community Recovery and the South East Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke.

The city in February denied General Iron’s owners the final permit needed to move the scrapper’s assets and employees to Southside Recycling at 11600 S. Burley Ave. in East Side.

But the city’s “driving role” in facilitating the planned move benefited the mostly white Lincoln Park community at the expense of Black and Latino South Siders, violating the latter’s civil rights in the process, federal officials said.

“We knew from the get-go that the city was upholding environmental racism,” said Gina Ramirez, board president of the Southeast Environmental Task Force.

Federal housing officials are urging the city to change its planning and zoning practices so as not to discriminate against nonwhite communities, the letter said. The city distributed $375 million in HUD block grants in the 2021 budget, and future funding could be at risk if local leaders don’t come into compliance with federal law, officials said.

“The City’s actions with respect to General Iron continued a historical pattern and broader policy of directing heavy industry to Black and Hispanic neighborhoods,” HUD’s compliance and disability rights director Jacy Gaige wrote in the letter.

To voluntarily resolve the investigation, the City must address the “existing and potential environmental harms” of General Iron’s relocation plans. Officials must also “adopt an enhanced fair housing planning process” that includes plans to overcome disparities in environmental impacts, Gaige wrote.

“If a voluntary resolution cannot be obtained, HUD may initiate administrative proceedings or refer this matter to the U.S. Department of Justice for enforcement,” Gaige wrote.

The city was “unusually active” in pushing General Iron to leave Lincoln Park for East Side, Gaige wrote.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration worked to get Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) “on board” with the planned relocation and reviewed General Iron and Reserve Management Group’s announcement of the plans before they went public, the letter reads.

Lightfoot’s administration signed a 2019 agreement to help the company move General Iron’s operations to the Southeast Side. City officials didn’t identify any other agreement like it, Gaige wrote.

Adam Labkon, whose family owned General Iron for generations before selling to Reserve Management Group, testified in 2021 that the city “pressured” General Iron to leave Lincoln Park and would have remained in place if not for the city’s insistence, according to the letter.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Community members, leaders and activists take to the streets and carry a fake coffin through Logan Square to call on Mayor Lightfoot to deny the permit to move General Iron’s assets to the Southeast Side on the 30th day of the hunger strike on March 4, 2021.

Though federal officials said the February permit denial was “necessary” given the city’s environmental inequities, that denial is not final, as Southside Recycling is appealing the decision.

“If the appeal results in an approval, operations at the new site are expected to begin immediately since the new facility is fully constructed and all other permits have been issued,” Gaige wrote. “In addition, many of the [city’s discriminatory processes] remain unchanged and are ripe to be repeated.”

Ramirez said she hopes the investigation’s findings and calls for policy change can “put a halt to” industrial projects in Black and Latino neighborhoods, like the Hilco warehouse that opened last year in Little Village and the NorthPoint industrial complex and Invert underground warehouse on the Southeast Side, she said.

“We want to reiterate to these companies that we don’t want to add to the cumulative burden of pollution,” Ramirez said. “We’ve been sacrifice zones for long enough. Black and Brown communities are hardest hit with pollution, so we need to rethink how urban planning is developed in Chicago [and do it] through an equity lens.”

Lightfoot spokesperson Cesar Rodriguez accused the feds of leaking the letter and denied the city’s actions amount to discrimination.

“We will respond given the opportunity, but any allegations that we have done something to compromise the health and safety of our Black and Brown communities are absolutely absurd,” Rodriguez said. “We will demonstrate that and prove them wrong.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The former General Iron Industries in Lincoln Park.

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