COVID-19 is not the only threat to Chicago’s lungs this spring, as neighborhoods struggle with toxic polluters in multiple parts of the city. After Hilco’s demolition of the Crawford coal plant blanketed Little Village with a dark cloud of pollution just a month ago, many hoped to see environmental hazards taken seriously in light of the pandemic. But several dangerous facilities have remained open nonetheless. Just yesterday, an explosion rocked a north side metal scrap waste facility in Lincoln Park sending another “mushroom cloud” of pollution into the air. The city made the right decision to shut down General Iron until they can do a full investigation. However, they said nothing about current plans to move the facility to the Southeast Side by the end of this year, a community that is already facing disproportionately high rates of air pollution and respiratory illness.
What is bad for the north side is certainly bad for the south side as well, so I went to speak out against General Iron at a May 15, 2020 hearing hosted by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA), along with experts and neighbors from across the city. No community should have to bear the burden of air pollution at any time, but as coronavirus rates are skyrocketing in Chicago’s Latino community, Chicago must step up to stop polluters like Hilco and General Iron from compounding the problem.
Here are some points from my testimony and the hearing:
General Iron contributes to unhealthy air
This facility has been in the hot seat for years, as the surrounding community grew increasingly frustrated with noxious smells, explosions, and pollution. General Iron has consistently violated environmental law, with a fire in 2015, a city-ordered shut-down in 2016, and a citation for air pollution in 2018. The facility’s current pollution control equipment remains insufficient to curb the problem, yet they plan to keep the same equipment at the new site.
After numerous complaints continued last year, ELPC partnered with a neighborhood group, Clean North Branch, to monitor air quality around the facility. ELPC’s air team works with community members around the city of Chicago, using hand-held monitors to measure particulate matter—tiny air pollution that is dangerous to everyone, especially those with asthma and other chronic respiratory illnesses. Our data shows that air quality around the current location remains unhealthy. A public health inspector reported in March of 2020, “I could not fully inhale nor could I keep my eyes open at this location. When leaving the area after the inspection, I could feel my nose throbbing and chest discomfort.” Local resident Lara Compton’s description is an understatement: “General Iron is not a good neighbor.”
The Southeast Side has too much air pollution already
Chicago’s Southeast side, which is predominately Latino, already struggles with institutional discrimination and high rates of cancer and respiratory illnesses. There are at least 6 other nearby permitted facilities that will continue to negatively impact the health of the residents and pollute the community. General Iron’s permit application failed to consider the cumulative impacts of all this pollution. During the hearing, lifelong resident Gina Ramirez described it as “a sacrifice zone for decades,” and another resident called this environmental racism. Neighbor Mark Valez described a petition with more than 2000 signatures in opposition to the move. Our fellow Chicagoans deserve to be protected.
General Iron’s move will likely violate Illinois law
The Illinois legislature has recognized that the principle of environmental justice requires that no segment of the population, regardless of race, national origin, age, or income, should bear disproportionately high or adverse effects of environmental pollution. Moving the General Iron facility would do just that. The Southeast Side is in the 92nd percentile in the state for exposure to particulate matter, with a population that is over 80% Latino. These rates are far disproportionate to the rest of the city, much less the state. Taking this into account with General Iron’s track record of pollution, sections of the Illinois Environmental Protection Act will likely be violated if their permit is granted.
The hearing process did not allow for adequate public participation
The Southeast Side has a significant population of Spanish speakers, yet people did not receive access to information about this hearing in Spanish nor was the hearing being translated into Spanish. There should be another hearing that allows oral participation in the hearing process and comments should not be limited to those in writing. Outside of this pandemic, limiting public hearing to an online forum is a hindrance to public participation for those who do not have the broadband width to participate. It impedes the spirit of an actual public hearing—we do not see any visual aids that would otherwise be present, we do not see the numbers of people in support or opposed to a position. Body language and emotion can neither be conveyed as well over the phone or over a computer. Now that we are in a pandemic, people are more limited in their ability to participate for more than just those technological reasons. The public must be given the opportunity to adequately participate.
The City of Chicago needs to Step Up
The Illinois EPA stated at the hearing that it can only consider whether General Iron’s equipment has the design and operational capabilities to limit pollution. This is why it is also important for the City of Chicago to step up. The City has a say in where it allows facilities to move and operate through zoning ordinances. The City should not permit facilities with a checkered past of explosions, fires, and poor emissions or exceedances to move into areas already experiencing pollution. The City should not allow industry to engage in activity to worsen air pollution, such as demolishing a coal plant in a residential neighborhood riddled with pollution during a shelter in place order. The City must revisit its zoning of industrial facilities next to schools, parks, and residential areas, especially in neighborhoods with vulnerable populations. The City should also take action when new facilities are moving to sacrifice zones to protect its communities.
ELPC is committed to working with residents across the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois, and the Midwest region to protect clean air and public health. Neither Lincoln Park nor the Southeast Side deserves to bear the brunt of toxic air pollution, and General Iron has not shown themselves worthy of the public’s trust. I will close out with another quote from the testimony of Lincoln Park resident and mother Lara Compton:
“As a current neighbor to General Iron – I implore you to not grant this serial polluter the opportunity to poison and endanger yet another Chicago community… [They have] proven time and time again that they cannot and will not adhere to the rules and regulations the EPA and the City of Chicago sets.
Why do you think this time will be different?”