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Chicago blocks controversial metal recycling company from building new facility on the city’s Southeast Side

The proposed facility faced fierce criticism from local activists and community organizers, who said it would further damage an already heavily-polluted neighborhood's environmental health.

CHICAGO (CN) — The Chicago Public Health Department denied a controversial scrap metal recycler's building permit application on Friday, ending the company's yearslong effort to build a metal recycling plant on the city's Southeast Side.

Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s Public Health Commissioner, said in a statement on Friday that the company’s poor environmental track record “presented an unacceptable risk” for residents.

“CDPH found the potential adverse changes in air quality and quality of life that would be caused by operations, and health vulnerabilities in the surrounding communities - together with the company's track record in operating similar facilities…  present an unacceptable risk,” the statement read.

Southside Recycling, a subsidiary of the larger Ohio-based recycling company Reserve Management Group, has sought to build a scrap metal recycling facility on its property in the predominantly Latino, low-income neighborhood of East Side since 2019. Had it been built, the new facility would have replaced RMG's shuttered General Iron recycling plant in the relatively wealthy, white-majority Lincoln Park neighborhood on Chicago's North Side. 

Community organizers and environmental activists have opposed the construction since the company first announced it, claiming that a new facility would have a negative impact on the local environment as well as residents' long term health. East Side is already one of the most heavily polluted neighborhoods in Chicago, with a history as one of the city’s main industrial corridors. Post-deindustrialization, the area still regularly reports higher-than-city-average rates of asthma and cancer

"We are a dumping ground, we are the garbage can of the city," Block Club Chicago quoted one East Side resident saying in 2020.

Even in Lincoln Park, as Arwady noted in her statement, RMG has a poor track record. The now-closed General Iron plant saw a fire in 2015, loud explosions in 2020, and general violations of Environmental Protection Agency standards in 2006, 2012 and 2018. 

“General Iron allowed fugitive particulate matter from the hammermill shredder that was visible by an observer looking generally toward the zenith to cross the property line of the Facility on at least June 13, 2018… To date, General Iron has failed to install any emission capture or control equipment that achieves an overall reduction of uncontrolled [volatile organic material] emissions of at least of 81 percent at the hammermill shredder or, alternatively, obtain a federally enforceable equivalent control plan at the hammermill shredder,” a 2018 EPA violation report on the Lincoln Park facility stated.

Despite its poor reputation, Mayor Lori Lightfoot signed an agreement supporting RMG building its new Southside Recycling facility in East Side in September 2019. This only further incensed organizers and activists. Protesters took to marching funeral caskets near Lightfoot’s home in the quickly-gentrifying Logan Square neighborhood, and showed up en masse at her local church. Eleven particularly dedicated individuals, including City Council member Byron Sigcho-Lopez, even joined a hunger strike in February of 2021 that lasted a full 30 days to protest the possible construction. 

Following this hunger strike, the EPA also urged Lightfoot to back down on her support of RMG, and in May 2021, she delayed approving the company's permit pending a more thorough environmental review. A Health Impact Assessment released by city’s Public Health Department earlier this February echoed much of the activists' complaints. Though the HIA made no recommendations on how Arwady or City Hall should act regarding the RMG permit, it pointed out that much of the city's heavy industry is already concentrated around the Southeast Side, and that local environmental health is far poorer in the area when compared to neighborhoods on the North Side.

“The Southeast side includes certain areas that are made more vulnerable to pollution than Chicago overall due to underlying health conditions and social factors, which often reflect structural racism and institutional inequalities… The history of RMG’s operation of the [Lincoln Park] site, which has been problematic, does not provide CDPH with confidence that the company will run the site in strict compliance with permit conditions, which CDPH considers essential for avoiding negative impacts on the environment, health, and quality of life for residents of the Southeast side.” the HIA stated.

“In an already vulnerable community, the findings from the HIA combined with the inherent risks of recycling operations and concerns about the company’s past and potential compliance are too significant to ignore,” Arwady confirmed in her own statement.

Despite this pushback, RMG spent much of 2021 fighting to have its permit approved. It sued the city twice over the summer for $100 million in damages, claiming that the delay of its permit was an infringement of its constitutional rights. It denied that its plant would generate any significant pollution in the neighborhood, or that moving operations from the majority-white North Side to the majority-Latino and Black Southeast Side was in any way racially motivated. It had a lot on the line. The company poured over $80 million of investments into the East Side facility, plus the costs of shuttering its Lincoln Park facility.

“The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits the government from taking private property without just compensation. The Fourteenth Amendment extends this prohibition to state and local governments,” RMG wrote in the first of its complaints against the city. “By preventing Southside Recycling from operating a large metal recycling facility on property which RMG has owned for decades and on which it has the right, under all applicable ordinances and rules, to operate such a facility, the City has effectively taken the value of RMG's property without just compensation.”

Unconvinced, District Judge Robert Dow Jr. bounced RMG’s federal lawsuit in July, while Cook County Circuit Judge Michael Mullen did the same with the company’s state-level lawsuit in August. 

“The Court lacks jurisdiction over Plaintiffs’ sole claim within the Court’s original jurisdiction—a takings claim under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States,” Dow wrote in his ruling on the case. “That claim is not ripe [for judgment] because Defendants have not rendered a final decision on Plaintiffs’ permit application.”

While Arwady’s final denial of RMG’s permit leaves it in a financial hole, her statement clarifies the Public Health Department would be open to supporting future endeavors by the company provided it adheres to stricter environmental guidelines. The denial is also a clear victory for the activists who have spent more than three years fighting the construction of yet another industrial campus in their backyards.

On Friday night, what was meant to be a protest rally in front of City Hall became an impromptu celebration — a marching brass band complete with a drum line marched up and down the street in front of City Hall while onlookers cheered. 

The turn of events also won praise from Illinois Democratic Rep. Chuy Garcia, whose 4th District encompasses the area where the Southside Recycling plant would have been built. 

“Every person deserves access to clean air regardless of their zip code,” Garcia said in a Friday night tweet. “I applaud Southeast side residents for their advocacy and the City for weighing the true impact of this project.”

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Categories / Environment, Government

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