Over the objection of thousands of Chicagoans and a chorus of state representatives, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday issued a construction permit to General Iron, allowing the company to move its metal-shredding operation from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side.
In a statement announcing the permit, Illinois EPA acknowledged “the high level of public concern over this project” as well as “the growing concerns surrounding the location and relocation of emissions sources in communities or neighborhoods that have historically been disproportionately impacted by industrial pollution, particularly areas identified as environmental justice areas.”
But, the agency emphasized, the matter at hand was a permit, not enforcement or compliance, and its decision was based on the permit application alone, per the parameters outlined in the Illinois Environmental Protection Act and upheld in the courts.
“Enforcement cannot be conducted through permitting activity,” the agency stated, and “the Agency must not deny or base a permit decision upon mere allegations that a source is violating or has violated applicable requirements.”
The allegations and violations referenced include persistent complaints from Lincoln Park residents of a metal “tang” in the air and a coating of metal “fluff” on surfaces surrounding General Iron’s current facility.
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.
In August 2019, in response to the 2018 violation, the EPA and General Iron finalized a consent order that requires the company to reduce air emissions through additional pollution controls.
In May, the city fined General Iron $6,000 following a pair of explosions at its Lincoln Park facility.
If environmental activists thought the recent incident may have swayed the opinion of the Illinois EPA, that wasn’t the case. Per the agency’s statement, past or ongoing compliance issues were outside the purview of its deliberations on the permit.
Environmental activists from the Southeast Side, which has been plagued with pollution from heavy industry, immediately responded with frustration and anger.
“The concept of Environmental Justice began in the 1980s, and is about the fair and equitable distribution of environmental benefits and burdens,” said Peggy Salazar, director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force. “We have been fighting for over 30 years for just that. The agency charged with protecting us and helping us to achieve our goal continues to disappoint and fail our community.”
Olga Bautista, who spearheaded a successful campaign to ban petcoke on the Southeast Side, said community members were “sick of having to put our lives on hold in order to fight back against a dangerous polluter because the State and City refuse to do their jobs.”
Before permits are final, the Chicago Department of Public Health will also have to issue approvals under the new Large Industrial Facilities Rules.
“Now that the State has rubber-stamped this permit, we need the City to step up and prevent this threat from coming to a vulnerable community,” Bautista said.
The Illinois EPA did issue special permit conditions that impose additional requirements on General Iron, including:
— Limitations on emissions and hours of operation based on modeling of hazardous metallic pollutants
— Extensive initial and follow-up emissions testing, including capture efficiency testing
— Installation and operation of monitoring devices
— Development and implementation of Fugitive Emissions Operating Program
— Development and implementation of Operation and Maintenance Plan
But as activists have long questioned, if General Iron skirted environmental rules in affluent Lincoln Park, what is the expectation for compliance in a working-class community of color?
“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),” Lara Compton, Clean the North Branch steering committee member, told WTTW News in advance of Illinois EPA hearings in May.
In a lengthy letter sent to Illinois EPA, General Iron’s parent company, Reserve Management Group (RMG), refuted the claims made against its operations as “false” and “unsubstantiated.” The rebuttal was signed by RMG CEO Steve Joseph and Chief Operating Officer Hal Tolin.
“We are looking forward to commencing operations in early 2021 with the most technologically advanced facility available and bringing jobs and commerce to the Southeast Side, where RMG has operated and provided community support for nearly three decades,” the company said in a statement following the Illinois EPA approval.
“The permit establishes that RMG has met all environmental requirements and the environmental controls and equipment at the new General III facility will exceed those found at any other steel shredding operation in Illinois or the surrounding states. The permit imposes strict conditions that will ensure we keep our commitment to respect and protect air quality and public health,” the company stated.