Chicago's Homegrown Resistance to ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM: Residents of Chicago's Southeast Side waged a grassroots fight against a polluting industry-and won.

AuthorJohnson, Christopher

For decades, General Iron operated a metal recycling facility on the western edge of Chicago's affluent Lincoln Park neighborhood. There, the company shredded automobiles, refrigerators, and other metal products and sold the scrap in the lucrative metal recycling market.

The company, though, was notorious for its pollution. In 2015, a fire broke out on the grounds, and in 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued General Iron a citation for emitting air pollution that exceeded legal limits. In 2019, the company had to install air pollution reduction equipment. The following year, a fire started in the mechanism that controlled emissions from the automobile shredder, resulting in an explosion, for which the company was fined.

Ohio-based Reserve Management Group (RMG) acquired General Iron in 2019, and soon after, the company announced that it would move its metal-shredding operation to Chicago's Southeast Side--a working-class community with a largely Latinx population.

Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration cooperated with RMG on the move as part of a grand plan to redevelop the western edge of Lincoln Park into Lincoln Yards, a $6 billion mixed-use development that will include high-end residential and office buildings, and outdoor recreational areas. Expecting the relocation to proceed without any hitches, RMG rebranded General Iron as Southside Recycling and began building a new $80 million metal recycling facility at the site, where it already owned four other recycling operations.

So far, so good, right? Move a highly polluting company from Chicago's affluent and white Lincoln Park neighborhood to a Latinx and African American community on the South Side. The "Chicago Way" appeared to be alive and well in the twenty-first century.

Despite the company's plans, though, the good folks who live on the Southeast Side had other ideas. When RMG announced the move in 2019, residents were outraged that the city was allowing yet another noisy, smelly, and polluting facility to relocate to a community where industrial pollution already causes innumerable health and quality-of-life problems.

"We've been the dumping ground for everybody in the state of Illinois for so many decades," Cheryl Johnson (no relation), executive director of People for Community Recovery, an organization that fights for environmental justice throughout the city, tells The Progressive. "There were a couple of public meetings that were superpacked. People...

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