Mayor Brandon Johnson said Thursday he will appeal a ruling by an administrative law judge that could force city health officials to issue the final permit sought by the parent company of General Iron to operate a metal shredding and recycling operation on Chicago’s Southeast Side.
Administrative Judge Mitchell Ex ruled that Reserve Management Group, known as RMG, met the requirements for the permit it needs to operate Southside Recycling at 11600 S. Burley Ave.
Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration refused to issue that permit after Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan said the proposal raised “significant civil rights concerns.” In February 2022, Chicago Department of Public Health officials determined the operation posed an “unacceptable risk” to the health of Southeast Side residents and rejected the permit after conducting a health impact assessment.
RMG appealed that decision, and a spokesperson for the firm hailed the administrative law judge’s decision, which Johnson can now challenge in Cook County Circuit Court.
“The ruling is a welcome victory after years of unforeseen obstacles and delays,” said RMG spokesperson Randall Samborn. “The hearing exposed the city’s failure to follow its own rules and ordinances.”
Firm officials have repeatedly said Southside Recycling would be the most “environmentally conscious metal recycling facility in the country.”
The ruling centered on the health impact assessment ordered by Lightfoot after Regan recommended an in-depth study of the proposal be completed before the permit was issued.
Lightfoot should have asked the City Council to ratify her decision to conduct that health impact assessment, according to the ruling. It is not clear whether that would have been approved by the City Council, since the new facility had the support of former Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th Ward) and alderpeople nearly always give the local alderperson the final say on ward-specific matters.
After the Lightfoot administration rejected the permit, Regan hailed the city’s decision as an example of “environmental justice” made possible by government officials working together “to protect vulnerable communities from pollution in their backyards.”
Johnson said he “strongly” disagreed with the ruling that could force the city to allow the metal scrapper to operate.
Residents of the Southeast Side and environmental advocates repeatedly urged the city to block the shredding operation from operating in the 10th Ward, a part of the city they said already experiences a disproportionate burden from industrial operations that cause air and soil pollution, traffic congestion and noise. Groups organized a month-long hunger strike and protested outside Lightfoot’s home.
“My administration stands firmly behind (Chicago Department of Public Health’s) permit denial and the comprehensive review that led to it,” Johnson said. “We will immediately appeal the administrative judge’s ruling and continue our fight to uphold our authority under the law to make decisions that protect the environment, health, and quality-of-life for residents of the 10th Ward and all environmental justice communities.”
Opponents of the proposed facility said moving the metal scrapper from Lincoln Park, where a majority of residents are wealthy and White, to the Southeast Side, which is home to a majority of Latino residents and dozens of other polluting businesses, was a clear example of environmental racism.
“Despite this ruling, I remain committed to alleviating the impact of industrial pollution, and my administration will continue working with residents and community organizations to deliver improved health and environmental outcomes for every Chicago resident and neighborhood,” said Johnson, who was elected with the support of many active in the push for environmental justice in Chicago.
The city’s appeal will be based on the study conducted by city health officials that found that part of the Southeast Side has the most air pollution of any Chicago neighborhood, Johnson said.
The city’s appeal will also cite records that show more than 250 operations on the Southeast Side have been investigated by the EPA for polluting the air with fine particulate matter that has been linked to a higher risk of cancer as well as respiratory disease, Johnson said. Other environmental issues in the neighborhood include heavy truck traffic and hazardous waste sites that are polluted with lead paint and wastewater, according to a letter from Regan.
The decision by city officials to give General Iron preliminary approval to move from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side violated the civil rights of Black and Latino Chicagoans, according to the results of a federal probe.
That decision “continued a broader policy of shifting polluting activities from White neighborhoods to Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, despite the latter already experiencing a disproportionate burden of environmental harms,” according to the results of the probe.
One of Lightfoot’s final acts in office was to resolve those charges by signing binding agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development vowing to put an end to those practices and to conduct a comprehensive environmental review.
The news of the ruling was first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times.