On Thursday, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency will hold a pair of virtual hearings to determine whether to grant a permit that would allow General Iron to move its metal shredding operation, now located in Lincoln Park, to the Southeast Side.
Environmental organizations, led by Clean the North Branch, are marshaling opposition in advance of the hearings, urging residents to sign up to provide comment during one of the two sessions scheduled for 1:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. Thursday.
“We don’t want General Iron on the North Branch or anywhere else in the city,” Clean the North Branch said in an email notice. “Speaking up will prevent General Iron from taking advantage of another neighborhood.”
Neighbors have long complained about pollutants emanating from the facility at 1909 N. Clifton Ave., including a persistent black “fluff” that settles on surfaces, they say, and a metallic odor that permeates the air.
General Iron ran afoul of the U.S. EPA in July 2018, when the company was issued a notice of violation for exceeding limits on air emissions and for failing to obtain the proper operating permit.
“We’re on the North Side. If General Iron can’t get into compliance here, we’ve got to be kidding ourselves they’re going to stay in compliance there (on the Southeast Side),” said Lara Compton, Clean the North Branch steering committee member.
In August 2019, in response to the 2018 violations, the EPA and General Iron finalized a consent order that requires the company to reduce air emissions through additional pollution controls.
Not good enough, Compton said.
“The process in place to keep these businesses in check are not working properly. I went out for a walk and my tongue is still tingling from the metal in the air. There’s literally fluff all over our streets,” she said during a recent interview with WTTW News. “If we’re not going to get them shut down during a respiratory pandemic, when are we? It honestly feels like, ‘What is it going to take?’”
Meanwhile, on the Southeast Side, where General Iron plans to merge with an existing shredder and set up along the Calumet River on the former Republic Steel site, neighbors say they’ve suffered enough from industrial pollutants.
Residents already have high rates of asthma, cancer, diabetes and hypertension — all of which put the population at high risk for COVID-19.
“Stop using us as a dumping ground,” said Amalia Nieto Gomez, executive director of the Alliance of the SouthEast. “These are the families that literally built downtown. People have more than paid their dues.”
For Olga Bautista, who helped rid the area of pet coke, the constant battles against industry are exhausting.
“I feel like we’re barely holding the front. We’re not winning,” said Bautista, a board member with the Southeast Environmental Task Force.
The virtual hearings are further proof of the community’s marginalization, she said.
Many of her neighbors are essential workers who can’t afford to take time off to appear during the virtual hearing, or they lack the necessary technology to participate.
“It’s a huge obstacle to get online and register for this sh*t,” said Bautista.
The fact that the EPA has already created a draft permit for General Iron is demoralizing, she said.
“Our lives don’t matter as much as the profit of these industries,” Bautista said.