General Iron’s Lincoln Park metal shredding operation, which was shut down by the city following two May explosion, could soon resume pending final inspections that are expected to occur within the coming days, officials said Monday night at a virtual town hall.
The meeting, led by Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, laid out the results of the investigation into the explosion and outlined the actions that have been taken to prevent a repeat blast.
Despite assurances from Arwady and an engineering expert that General Iron now has sufficient controls in place to run its shredder safely, Ald. Brian Hopkins, whose 2nd Ward is home to the metal recycler, called the seeming eventuality of resumed operations “unconscionable” and told residents who participated in the town hall: “You deserve a better outcome than you’re about to get.”
Neighbors have long waged a campaign to close General Iron, complaining of air pollution, odors, noise, dust and “fluff” — a byproduct of shredding objects like cars.
Calls to 311 prompted the majority of the more than 100 inspection visits the city’s public health department paid to General Iron in the past year, with 11 citations issued between December 2019 and March 2020 for odors, dust and off-site fibers, according to Arwady. In response, she said, the company has added four more misters, bringing the total to 10, to suppress dust and has hung netting to contain the auto fluff.
Those measures weren’t enough to satisfy neighbors. Echoing the sentiments expressed by many of his constituents during the two-hour town hall, Hopkins said the fact that General Iron received numerous citations “when it knew it was under a microscope” demonstrates a lack of commitment to compliance.
Much of the town hall focused on the May explosion, which rocked nearby buildings.
Reserve Management Group (RMG), which bought General Iron’s assets in 2018 and intends to relocate the metal recycling operation to the Southeast Side, hired independent consultant Exponent to investigate the cause of the blast. (The controversial relocation plan was the subject of a separate town hall held in July.)
The city, in turn, brought on board its own consultant, Joseph Jaskulski, a mechanical engineer, to oversee Exponent.
“The city directed me to be heavily involved … in every aspect of the investigation,” Jaskulski said during the town hall.
The explosion, he said, originated in a piece of pollution control equipment installed in 2019 — per a consent order with the Environmental Protection Agency — called a regenerative thermal oxidizer (RTO). The RTO operates at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit and is designed to burn off volatile organic compounds.
In terms of keeping pollutants from entering the air, Arwady said the RTO “had been working really well.”
The source of fuel for the explosion was a flammable gas most likely from a large container of propane or other gas hitting the RTO’s wall of heat, according to Jaskulski, who issued a report stating the same. (Exponent’s report classifies the cause as “undetermined,” citing a lack of evidence of a shredded gas cylinder.)
Propane tanks are brought to General Iron for recycling but shouldn’t be placed in the shredder, for the precise reason demonstrated by the explosion. In the event one makes its way into the machinery in the future, a combustible gas monitor has been installed to shut down the RTO within two seconds.
“It works,” Jaskulski said of the monitor, which he witnessed in action and called a “highly reliable mechanical control.”
To keep objects like propane cylinders from entering the shredding stream in the first place, additional signage about the tanks’ dangers has been placed throughout the facility, letters were sent to General Iron’s top 100 suppliers and all new scrappers are now receiving a flyer telling them to separate out the tanks.
Between the gas monitor and administrative efforts, Jaskulski said there’s “no reason for the facility to not resume shredding-related operations.”
Inspectors from the Chicago Fire Department, the Department of Buildings and Chicago Department of Public Health all need to sign off before the shutdown order is lifted.
Arwady acknowledged that much of General Iron’s operation could be characterized as a “nuisance,” but said issues like the troublesome fluff aren’t health hazards.
The fluff, she said, is tested twice a year and has never come back as hazardous. General Iron treats the stuff to remove any contaminants — chemicals like arsenic and cadmium, among other — to the point that the material is considered acceptable by landfill operators as “daily cover,” which is spread over compacted waste.
“I am not trying to pull one over on you here,” Arwady said. “We’ve not seen information that this would be considered hazardous to health.”
That being said, the steady stream of complaints residents have levied against General Iron did inform the new rules the city just adopted in June for large recyclers, Arwady added.
Though the rules won’t apply to General Iron if or when it resumes shredding in Lincoln Park, requirements like noise monitors, real-time air quality monitoring and traffic studies will be written into permits for any new recycling facility, including RMG’s proposed metal recycling plant on the Southeast Side.
Putting appropriate restrictions in place at the outset is key, Arwady said.
Inspectors can only issue citations when a company is operating outside what’s allowed in its permits, she said. “That’s why getting the permit right in the first place is important.”