Over a hundred students, teachers, and community members came together at George Washington High School in Chicago’s Southeast Side on Sunday, October 24, to call on city officials to block a toxic metal shredder from being built down the street from them. The students’ message was loud and clear: “We can’t learn if we can’t breathe.”
The action was just the latest in a longer struggle against the proposed relocation of the General Iron Industries metal recycling facility from its current home in the affluent neighborhood of Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side—a working class community of color.
“This is intergenerational,” said Luis Cabrales, president and cofounder of the Southeast Youth Alliance. “It’s all of us in the 10th Ward, and our health matters. General Iron contributes nothing to this neighborhood.”
The youth-led demonstration converged with a Halloween-themed bike ride organized by the Southeast Side–based social justice organization Bridges/Puentes. After a series of speeches by students and community activists, the group marched to the home of tenth ward alderwoman Sue Sadlwoski Garza to demand that she address the needs of her constituents and speak out in opposition to the General Iron Industries metal shredder.
The spontaneous decision to march to Garza’s house and place further pressure on the alderwoman came after she backed out on a promise to activists to come out with a strong response against General Iron. Garza had previously claimed that the Southeast Side would no longer be the city’s dumping ground, however after a perceived failure to address the situation adequately, residents felt it was time to turn the heat up on the tenth ward alderwoman. Much of the disappointment Alderwoman Garza’s lack of response is also due to the fact that before being elected into City Council, she had been on the frontlines of past struggles against polluters in the area and had also been a member of Chicago Teachers Union, one of the most progressive unions in the entire country.
“We don’t want empty promises,” said sophomore Alejandra Cruz. “Officials like Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Alderwoman Garza are supposed to stand up for our rights. . . . Our community doesn’t deserve to be used as the city’s garbage can.”
The students had already led a previous organizing victory. They successfully pushed their Local School Council to vote to remove their school resource officers (SROs) as part of the struggle to get the Chicago Police Department out of the Chicago Public Schools. That fight was inspired in large part by this past summer’s rebellion against police brutality and systemic racism. Many students also took part in several youth-led Black and brown solidarity actions on the Southeast Side to show to the rest of their neighbors that anti-Black sentiments would not be tolerated in their community. Another new force in the community contributing to the organizing is United Neighbors of the 10th Ward. UN10 was able to organize mutual aid efforts that proved crucial for families on the Southeast Side that were struggling during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The decision to relocate the General Iron shredder away from the North Side came as a result of the Lincoln Yards project approved by the City of Chicago late in 2019. The negotiations between second ward alderman Brian Hopkins and Mayor Lori Lightfoot then resulted in the new proposed location being the industrial corridor along the Calumet River. Once again proving that in the eyes of City Hall, “beautification” refers to creating more green and sustainable spaces on the North Side, while shifting pollution and contamination to the South Side.
General Iron has found itself in many controversies over the years due to its poor environmental practices as well as its alleged mistreatment of workers. In fact the company had been forced to temporarily shut down operations earlier this spring as a result of an explosion. However at the behest of North Branch residents, the City of Chicago’s Department of Buildings gave the company permission to resume operations back in August. Last month, the company paid the city $18,000 in fines, and as part of the settlement were cleared of any wrongdoing.
The new proposed location for General Iron would be less than a mile from the aforementioned GWHS and not much further from George Washington Elementary. GWHS is the only public high school in the tenth ward, and is made up of a 90 percent Latinx student population with another 5 percent African-American students. Dangerous particles coming out of the metal shredder would essentially be blown directly in the path of the two schools, putting over 2,200 students in danger of the harmful side effects that can come with exposure to these particles, including heart attacks, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, and premature death.
The clear racism behind this decision led environmental justice groups in the Southeast Side to file a civil rights complaint against the City of Chicago back in August. The complaint charged that the city’s zoning and land-use practices have allowed for discrimination towards communities of color, who have historically faced a disproportionate brunt of industrial pollution.
The southeast corridor has long been an industrial zone due to the ability to purchase large quantities of land at a cheaper price as well as accessibility to the river. The area had been the home of US Steel for decades, but even long after the mills closed down, the pollution remained. In recent years, residents organized to pass restrictions against petroleum coke—or petcoke—a toxic byproduct of tar sands crude oil. Along with the struggle to remove petcoke, community groups called for the city to clean the region after a dangerous level of the heavy metal known as manganese was found in neighborhood parks and residential areas.
The consolidation of industry and pollution along the Calumet River has created what many have deemed a “toxic donut.” The area is essentially an island completely surrounded by pollution and contamination due to facilities and landfills that have covered the area in ash and smoke. The result for residents has been myriad health issues including heart problems and cancer as well as pulmonary conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
This is considerably worrisome especially given the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged Black and brown communities. In large part higher comorbidities found in these neighborhoods result from environmental racism leading to dangerous levels of toxicity and poor air quality. As we enter yet another wave of the virus spiking, why would the city introduce even more pollution into an area already hard hit by pollution and respiratory diseases?
As a result of the complaint, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that they would be investigating the city’s decision to relocate General Iron from an affluent neighborhood into one that is low-income and majority Latinx.
In fact, the nature of the environmental racism has been so blatant, that it even led the conservative-leaning Chicago Tribune to publish an editorial denouncing the discrimination Southeast Side residents endured as part of the City of Chicago’s policies around industrial zoning, writing:
Lightfoot and City Hall need to rethink where they allow industries with a track record for polluting to locate. Chicago can’t thrive unless every neighborhood thrives, not just the ones north of the Kennedy Expressway. And the Southeast Side can’t thrive if its only path toward jobs and development is paved with toxic waste and polluted air.
Instead of being pushed to deny the outstanding permits, Lightfoot has largely been silent on the issue of General Iron except during a town hall hosted by the Tribe earlier in the fall, when Lightfoot was asked about the metal shredder coming to the Southeast Side. Her response was to focus on the fact that Reserve Management Group had bought out the company.
“The equipment and some of the materials are moving to the Southeast Side,” Lightfoot acknowledged, “but it is not accurate to say that General Iron is moving to the Southeast Side.”
The tone-deaf response by Lightfoot has been par for the course, and seems to be an attempt to change the narrative in order to avoid any serious discussion about holding polluters accountable and about addressing the racist history of land use in Chicago as mentioned in the complaint. The “equipment” and “materials” coming into the area and leading to further contamination are what residents are concerned with, not with whatever trademark the company uses.
Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, has struck a similar tone. Arwady had promised that the city would announce all decisions around the relocation process to Southeast Side residents earlier this summer, yet failed to notify the community when the City of Chicago approved one of the two remaining permits that would all but seal the fate of the General Iron relocation.
As a pediatrician, I remain the most concerned for our youngest children and the children with special needs who frankly are the least able to access education through screens and have the most to lose,” Arwady said at a recent press conference to defend the city’s controversial plan to resume in-person education at Chicago Public Schools.
What’s interesting about Arwady touting her background as a pediatrician is that by failing to properly address the fact that a mass polluter is likely to build within feet of two public schools, Arwady makes it pretty tough to believe that our city’s youth are her main concern.
Lightfoot did propose a zoning ordinance to City Hall that would call for more strict regulations on new industrial facilities attempting to open in Chicago. Although a small step in the right direction, it stops well short of addressing the current concerns over the accumulation of pollution in neighborhoods all throughout Chicago’s South Side. In fact, both General Iron and the Hilco warehouse project that resulted in the botched demolition of a decommissioned coal plant in Little Village last April were approved under the process that this ordinance proposes. It also would do little to protect residents of McKinley Park from the toxic MAT Asphalt plant poisoning their neighborhood.
It’s clearly going to take a larger effort to properly address the existing burden that people of color face when it comes to questions of industrial pollution. As city officials have shown, the type of process that would give adequate voice to the communities and can truly repair the harm done by polluters throughout the South and West sides is one those communities would need to win themselves.
Although General Iron has proven to be a dangerous polluter with a history of corruption, the root of environmental racism goes beyond corrupt politicians and beyond individual companies with a shady moral compass. The reality is that this is a result of a system that prioritizes the profit margins of companies and developers over the health and air quality of Black and brown communities.
General Iron’s new ownership recently went as far as to announce that their relocation was all but a done deal, but as Southeast Side residents proved with past polluters, it ain’t over ’til it’s over.