After a nearly four-year-long fight to block the relocation of the General Iron metal shredding facility, community members in Chicago’s Southeast Side achieved what seemed unthinkable even just weeks ago—they won.
On Friday, February 18, 2022, the Chicago Department of Public Health sent out an announcement that many of us thought we would never see: “Today, the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) is announcing that Reserve Management Group’s (RMG) permit to operate a scrap metal recycling facility on Chicago’s Southeast Side has been denied.”
This decision by the city came after the conclusion of a Health Impact Assessment process that took place in order to finally determine whether or not the $80 million metal-shredding operation now known as SouthSide Recycling would be receiving its final operating permit.
It was supposed to be a done deal—until it wasn’t.
“We’ll get the permit,” said Steve Joseph, Chief Executive of RMG to reporters during a tour of the facility in October of 2020.
RMG, the new parent company of the notorious facility, purchased General Iron Industries in the Summer of 2018 after the multi-billion dollar Lincoln Yards development zoned the notorious metal shredder out of the majority white neighborhood of Lincoln Park. The deal would allow General Iron to continue operations at their original location until 2020, and upon ceasing operations there would relocate to Chicago’s Southeast Side, a working-class majority Latinx community long overburdened by heavy industry and pollution. The proposal to relocate a toxic industry from an affluent part of town to a community of color was a textbook example of environmental racism.
A Tradition of Resistance
The Southeast Side is a community along the Calumet River which had long been the home of U.S. Steel. In the last few decades, however, most of the area’s steel mills shut down as a result of deindustrialization. But the region has continued to be a location for heavy industries, and has thus seen a number of high profile environmental justice fights over the last few years, including:the fight to ban petcoke (a toxic product of tar sands), the struggle to clean up manganese found in little league fields and resident’s yards, to push to shut down coal gasification plants, and of course, the movement to deny the permit for General Iron. And these are far from the only examples.
Despite this impressive record of community resistance to racism and corporate greed, however, General Iron clearly thought they would easily triumph over any pushback from the Southeast Side community. According to an article by Brett Chase of the Chicago Sun Times, Joseph and RMG believed that they would be receiving approval of the permit in early 2021. The city would hold a “public comment period” in December (a sham that got little meaningful input from the community) and after that the permit would be officially approved. It seemed like a done deal.
But all of that drastically changed in February of 2021 as Southeast Side community members announced that they were taking an unprecedented step in the fight: they would launch a hunger strike.
Preparing for a Hunger Strike
The decision to resort to a hunger strike was a difficult one, but one that the Stop General Iron coalition came to after weighing the burden of attempting to fix a system that was actively failing to serve the people. And that decision to take on a major polluter was made in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had severely affected Southeast Side residents due to the disproportionate health effects brought on by heavy industry. It came down to this: it was up to community members to take care of the needs of the community. Indeed this was what folks did in the early days of the pandemic by organizing mutual aid efforts, and it was what high school students, teachers and community members did when they organized to vote School Resource Officers (SROs) out of their school as part of the “CPD out of CPS” movement which arose after the Black Lives Matter uprising in the Summer of 2020.
The more it seemed like a permit would be approved, the more many began to feel a sense of desperation. But the constant question on our minds was always: How far are we willing to go? And what has been done before? Quite a bit had been done up to that point: there had been a series of demonstrations against the proposed relocation of General Iron in the 10th Ward—one outside of Alderwoman Sue Sadlowski Garza’s office and another at George Washington High School, which is less than a mile away from the proposed General Iron location. That demonstration also included a youth-led march to Alderwoman Garza’s home. There had also been protests outside of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s home in Logan Square, multiple town halls over zoom, and social media days of action and twitter storms. People had organized petitions, and community groups even filed a Civil Rights complaint that triggered a federal investigation through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
With a rich history of exploited communities transforming their conditions due to the relentless love and determination to fight against oppression, this gave us hope in the truth that “when the people fight, the people will win.”
But how far were we willing to go? The campaign realized that in order to match the urgency of the situation, escalation was necessary. And we had reflected closely on two key past battles in Chicago, such as the Little Village hunger strike that won activists the construction of Little Village Lawndale High School, as well as the Dyett High School hunger strike that successfully saved the school from closure. In addition, 20th Ward Alderwoman Jeannette Taylor, who took part in the hunger strike at Dyett, directly expressed solidarity with the coalition to stop General Iron, and offered crucial advice about what it was like to take part in a long-term hunger strike. At this point it became clear that one of the only tactics drastic enough to bring attention to this dire situation was a hunger strike.
The Impact of the Strike
Once the strike was under way, the fight to stop General Iron was thrust into the national spotlight and for a time was a major topic of nightly discussion in the news both locally and nationally. It also became a rallying point of solidarity with the Southeast Side. Dozens of organizations, including members of the Chicago Teachers Union, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers Local 182, Chicago Democratic Socialists of America, Poor People’s Campaign, Sierra Club, Illinois Environmental Council, the Chicago Environmental Justice Network and more than 300 individuals, including elected officials, joined in one-day solidarity hunger strikes and fasts. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, Alderman of the 25th Ward and member of the Democratic Socialist Caucus in City Hall, actually joined the hunger strike for its final week.
And at the end of it all, the community won and General Iron lost. The permit was denied.
In the wake of this momentous victory, however, it became clear that a number of key decision makers had failed to seriously engage with the hunger strikers as well as with the community more generally.
One such decision-maker was 10th Ward Alderwoman Sue Sadlowski Garza. Despite her claim that she would ensure that the Southeast Side would no longer be the city’s dumping ground, and despite being called on by activists to stand against the prospect of adding yet another polluter, Garza ultimately sided with General Iron over the community.
For a moment, she appeared to side with the community in the immediate wake of the decision to deny the permit. Soon thereafter, however, Garza flip flopped once more in a podcast interview by saying she disagreed with the decision to deny the permit to General Iron, citing “loss of union jobs” as well as using the company’s line that “this process was not one that was led by science.” The Alderwoman’s actions have disappointed many considering the fact that she had previously been a champion of environmental justice issues, such as the fight to ban Petcoke.
Mayor Lightfoot and CDPH Commissioner Allison Arwady were also completely absent both during the hunger strike as well during the fight more generally. Hunger strikers demanded to meet with Lighfoot, but she never reached out and all but ignored the fact that residents of her city were putting their lives on the line during a health crisis. Her conduct made it painfully clear that Lightfoot would rather let people die than do the right thing and deny the permit in a timely manner.
CDPH Commissioner Arwady also let the people of the Southeast Side down. Early on, she vowed that this would be a transparent process. After the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency approved the first permit for the General Iron relocation, she even promised community members that they would be alerted of any decisions made by the city regarding General Iron. Unfortunately, this was a promise she would soon break.
And at one point during the hunger strike, Arwady essentially put the interests of business on the same level as public health. As she put it:
“The Chicago Department of Public Health cares a lot about having healthy environments, [but], we also have to make sure that we follow the laws and the requirements that are in place related to business operations, so my team is in the middle of reviewing that.”
This frankly isn’t what you’d expect to hear from someone who truly cared about the strikers or the people of the Southeast Side.
The Significance of the Victory
The denial of the permit was a huge victory for both the Southeast Side as well as for the Environmental Justice movement, and that cannot be overstated. What this victory proves above all is that organizing gets the goods. And hopefully this victory can provide a blueprint for other frontline communities tackling injustice and environmental racism.
At the same time, we need to be mindful of the fact that the fight isn’t over. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. There remain hundreds of polluting industries in the region, with the threat for more on the way such as the Invert–an Ozinga owned development that would launch a mining operation in our own backyard.
There are also multiple Environmental Justice fights in other parts of the city of Chicago that need our solidarity and support from across the movement.
An important example is the fight in McKinley Park against MAT Asphalt. Though the company lacks a current permit, it continues to operate just across the street from a park and near several school and childhood development centers. Recently, the company filed a $500 million application to become the city’s main producer of asphalt. If this were to happen, they would significantly increase production and even more severely harm the health of McKinley Park residents.
Another key example is the continuing struggle in Little Village to get justice for the botched demolition at the hands of Hilco industries in April of 2020. As a result of Hilco’s actions, the entire neighborhood of Little Village was covered in a cloud of smoke, leading to the death of at least one community member. In the wake of this disaster, the city has consistently attempted to bury any kind of accountability process. And this is despite the fact that an Investigative General report called for the firing of at least one CDPH official due to their role in the debacle.
Where Do We Go From Here?
As we’ve said, the fight must continue. That’s why community members have called for more air monitors in the Southeast Side, in order to get a better sense of the air quality in the area. According to a recent report by Michael Hawthorne of the Tribune, Chicago ranks third in the entire nation in deaths related to diesel pollution. This comes after reports showed that due to the city’s toxic legacy of polluting in BIPOC communities, the air quality in Chicago actually worsened early on in the pandemic unlike the rest of the world.
Activists have also championed efforts to pass more reforms in order to prevent the next General Iron or MAT Asphalt from coming into a marginalized community. One such reform is a Cumulative Impact Ordinance. What this reform would do is that for every new permit application for an industrial facility, it would require an analysis that would take into account the overall burden of existing polluters in a particular area, which would disproportionately help communities like the Southeast Side in preventing future toxic sites from being able to operate.
These types of reforms will also require continual pressure from below in order to ensure that they are enforced. This is clear in the example of Newark, New Jersey where a Cumulative Impact Ordinance was passed, only for politicians to drag their feet when it came time to implement it. We have to continue to organize to make sure Chicago politicians don’t do the same thing in our case. In Democratic Party strongholds like Chicago, it’s become easy to see that environmental injustice is sadly an issue both parties are responsible for. So although we must champion environmental justice legislation, we need to continue to organize to ensure that these victories continue.
It’s clear that in order to protect the right to breathe clean air and drink clean water for every community, we need to uproot the systems of oppression that make it possible for BIPOC communities to be deemed sacrifice zones in the first place.
The fight for full decarbonization, for a Green New Deal, for sustainable jobs, for a world free of exploitation may seem daunting and nearly impossible. But at the same time, the fight to stop General Iron seemed impossible at different moments throughout our fight.
Just remember, it was supposed to be a done deal—until it wasn’t.