Southeast Side residents, long suffering with pollution, seek environmental justice as city weighs request to relocate controversial facility from Lincoln Park
Every morning, Roni-Nicole Facen wakes up at 4:15 a.m. It is her quiet time, which she uses to set her intentions. After a quick workout in her all-women’s gym called “Training Social,” she heads to St. Francis de Sales High School, where she is known as Principal Facen.
Chicago’s Southeast Side plays an important role in Facen’s life. Her family has lived there for generations, beginning with her grandparents, who worked at the neighborhood’s steel mills. While the mills played an important role on the Southeast Side, Facen and its many residents want the neighborhood to move forward from industrialization and factories.
“I want to be able to walk out in front of my school and go grab a cup of coffee down the street,” Facen said, “that’s the kind of environment we want to live in.”
Now, a few blocks from the school where Facen is principal, residents have a new concern: the proposed relocation of General Iron, a huge vehicle- and metal-shredding facility, from the wealthier Lincoln Park neighborhood where residents successfully pressured city officials to close it down.
A federal judge ruled last month not to block the city permit for General Iron, after two civil rights complaints — concerning environmental racism — were brought against the company by Facen and two other plaintiffs.
The company is now suing the city for delaying its last large recycling permit and “alleges that the city broke its agreement with [parent company] RMG and violated the company’s constitutional rights by taking private property, meaning depriving the company of its use, without just compensation.”
Due to the long, troubled history of mills, factories and other industrial sites on the Southeast Side, residents live with heavy pollution, and fewer parks and green spaces.
“You look north and we have Grant Park, the Maggie Daley Park, and all these places, but in the Southeast Side we have slag,” Facen said.
Slag is commonly used to refer to the waste remnants from the steel mill industry. “When it’s hot outside you can smell the chemicals coming from the soil,” Facen said. “This is our reality.”
In early February, a handful of activists drew television cameras by conducting a hunger strike to protest near the proposed General Iron shredding site. But area residents know they will have to live with the daily consequences of the industrial operation long after protesters are gone.
St. Francis De Sales High School is one of the many schools located near the proposed General Iron relocation. Jane Addams Elementary School, George Washington High School and Southeast Area Elementary School are less than 10 miles away from the construction site.
For years, many Southeast Side schools were exposed to toxic contaminants by other mills such as South Works Steel, Wisconsin Steel, Republic Steel and Pressed Steel.
Gina Ramirez, the Midwest Outreach Manager at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), says children are particularly harmed. She cited a University of Illinois at Chicago study on the impact of pollution on Southeast Side children ages seven to nine.
“On the Southeast Side, we have heavy metals [that] stay in your toenails for years and fingernails,” said Ramirez. “UIC did a preliminary study comparing toenail samples from children on the Southeast Side to other children in Chicago and found higher levels of manganese in our children here.”
The reality of this analysis has been experienced by teachers and staff of the neighborhood schools on a daily basis. Chuck Stark, a biology teacher at George Washington High School, is concerned for the future of his students and the community.
“There are students that when they go outside for P.E., because we use Rowan Park behind the school for certain activities, they have to take their inhaler with them,” Stark said. “There are higher rates of asthma and cases of cancer have increased.”
According to the Chicago Health Atlas, in the South Deering neighborhood where the relocation is underway, 15.6 percent of the residents suffer from asthma. The average rate in the city of Chicago is 9.5 percent.
In 2019 and 2020, NRDC’s Midwest Youth Ambassador and resident Lina Avalos led and organized a youth climate strike for similar reasons. “My little cousins, they all have asthma, really bad,” she said.
Avalos is still speaking out against General Iron three years later.
“The point where we had to have constituents starving themselves to get attention is really heartbreaking,” Avalos said of the recent strike. “But I was there uplifting and doing what I can to support.”
Timeline of Relocation
Hundreds of emails recently obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by Chicago Sun-Times reporter Brett Chase showed city officials working with Rahm Emanuel’s administration discussed the move as early as May 2018.
In September 2019, General Iron finalized its plans to move operations to the Southeast Side, rebranding to Southside Recycling under their parent company Reserve Management Group (RMG). However, the negotiation process of obtaining air pollution control and construction permits from the City of Chicago took nearly a full year, finally getting approved in June 2020.
Zoning hearings and town hall meetings prior to initial approval in March 2019 were meant to incorporate community response on the relocation. According to Ramirez, the city — in particular Alderman Susan Sadlowski Garza of the 10th Ward — was actively hostile toward Southeast Side community members during these meetings.
“When we had the meeting with RMG and General Iron, [Garza] was very upset that the Southeast Environmental Task Force brought in like 30 people and packed her room,” Ramirez said. “She was very agitated and upset. When we were sitting at the table, she asked me to move. She wanted to make space for RMG, General Iron and a constituent who voted for her. She asked [the other activists] to move and I was very upset.”
In an emailed statement Alderman Garza denied Ramirez’s claims. “The incidents you described never happened,” she said. At time of publication, Garza has not responded to recent requests regarding the meeting or its attendees.
Shortly afterwards, four community organizations, including the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke — of which Ramirez serves as co-chair — filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). A HUD investigator has now officially referred the complaint, containing allegations of environmental racism, to the Justice Department for further legal review.
“It’s really unfair that General Iron is moving to our neighborhood,” Ramirez said. “The constituents and the aldermen fought for years to protect Lincoln Park…the city heard their voices and met their demands. And we’re doing the same thing…why are our voices not being heard and honored in the same way as North Side residents when we have so much more that we’re dealing with out here?”
In February, community activists called on Garza to increase pressure on the city to delay permit approvals in light of the HUD complaint. The alderman responded to these calls by “strongly requesting a delay in issuing any permit for RMG’s proposed expansion,” though she is also named in the complaint.
“The fact remains that there are questions about the rezoning of the North Branch [of General Iron] that facilitated this expansion that need to be addressed,” Garza said in the emailed statement. “These issues are the heart of what we are facing on the Southeast Side.”
As of now, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has suspended approval of the final permit after President Joe Biden’s newly appointmented Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official decried the move as “environmental injustice.”
As General Iron moves to complete the relocation process, navigating a series of permissions and permits, community members on the Southeast Side find themselves on opposite sides of the fence.
At first, Ramirez explained, Alderman Garza was openly against the relocation to the Southeast Side. “She had come to us crying since she didn’t want it here,” said Ramirez. Her stance may have been influenced by the environmental issues the plant could bring to the neighborhoods surrounding the area.
Chase’s reporting noted that “high-ranking members in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration were reaching out to [Garza] to support the relocation of the business to her ward, according to five people who attended the meeting.”
Later, after meeting with company officials, Garza began to support the project, according to Ramirez. During the state permitting process, Ramirez claims Garza did not adequately inform the community members about public hearings. “She didn’t notify anyone via Facebook when the hearings were until that day after one of the hearings had already occurred,” Ramirez said.
According to a Facebook post by the community organization Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF), Garza was unaware of the zoning hearing held on March 15, 2019. No publications could be found on the alderwoman’s Facebook page alerting residents about the hearing.
However, according to the Zoning Board of Appeals, who held the hearing, written documentation must be sent to aldermen two weeks prior to any special use or variation permit hearing. After numerous attempts from reporters at 14 East, Garza has not commented on whether she knew about the zoning hearing in March 2019.
Although the General Iron relocation has yet to receive final approval from city officials, construction is already underway at the RMG site at East 116th Street and South Burley Avenue.
Residents are concerned not only about air pollution from the vehicle shredding operations; they also worry about hundreds of trucks, emitting fumes from diesel engines, as they move vehicles and shredded steel in and out of the facility.
“The street that General Iron will [be on] is a private street, but there’s no way that I can guarantee the trucks … will be rerouted to that street,” said Ramirez who lives in the area. “It’s going to bring an additional 700 trucks to the neighborhood. So we’re very concerned about the diesel emissions.”
“I think it’s another level of concern for all of us,” said Facen. “We know that burning diesel fuel in high temperatures is dangerous.”
Additionally, community activists pointed out that the company hasn’t been successful in keeping its workers safe. In May of 2020, the company was fined over $6,000 after two explosions at the North Side location shut down the facility until early August. According to a Block Club Chicago article, it was “believed to have originated in the shredder’s conveyor system.”
A giant inflatable rat —recently appearing near the Southeast Side construction area—points to labor disputes with the parent company. “Under RMG’s management, they had an explosion, right? So like, obviously, they aren’t training their staff,” Ramirez claimed. “They say that there’s a lot of non-union workers, actually unions were protesting … because they have non-licensed operators using cranes.”
The Road Ahead
RMG did not respond to requests for comment. However, a press release from June 2020 stated, “As we told the IEPA, numerous comments opposing the permit were wildly false and lacked either a factual basis or scientific evidence. 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.”
However, for generations of Southeast Side residents, community support in the form of additional heavy industry work does not outweigh the current and potential negative environmental effects of its pollutants.
“When I think of my own nephew, he’s two months old,” said Facen. “When I think of his future, it’s not like I want him to work at General Iron, I want him to be in a job that he finds passionate.”
To many residents, the intention has already been set. It’s time to move forward from polluting industry and begin sustainable revitalization for a cleaner, healthier and safer Southeast Side for generations to come.
Header image courtesy of Pullman State Historic Site & Southeast Chicago Historical Society