STOP GENERAL IRON: A letter from 10th ward neighbors to the Chicago Dept. of Public Health
STOP GENERAL IRON: A letter from 10th ward neighbors to the Chicago Dept. of Public Health
To: Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Mayor; Dr. Allison Arwady, Commissioner, Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH); Candace Moore, Chief Equity Officer, City of Chicago
We are writing to you as members of the Southeast side community to demand that the permit for RMG/Southside Recycling/General Iron III to operate in OUR community be denied.
The 10th ward is an area previously identified by the USEPA as an area of environmental justice concern. Chicago’s Southeast side was responsible for supporting steel production demands nationwide and even internationally. Located near waterways like the Calumet River and Lake Michigan, access to rail systems connected to other ports nationwide made the now 10th ward a prime target for industry. Access to cheap land and various transportation routes birthed the Calumet Industrial Corridor. However, when the steel mills closed in the early 2000s, the result was a community of folks designed to adapt their lifestyles to abandoned neurotoxic land. At the same time, polluting industries are prying themselves into our community with a sense of entitlement because of engineered racist and classist policies.
As those who live and work on the Southeast side, our health and the health of generations to come will be negatively impacted by additional sources of toxicants if this permit were approved.
The cardiopulmonary toxicity of air pollution is well established, and Southeast side residents worked endlessly to execute evidence-driven organizing while demanding cleaner and more sustainable conditions for the 10th Ward. The City of Chicago Air Quality and Health Report 2020 states, “Air pollution contributes to increased risk of chronic disease, which is the leading driver of Chicago’s nine-year life expectancy gap between Black and white residents and decreases in life expectancy in the Latinx population.” The same report also states “air pollution disproportionately burdens neighborhoods on the South and West Sides, with parts of the City bisected by major highways and high concentrations of industry facing significant impacts.” Geographically speaking, we are already facing a higher potential for toxicity from air pollution based on proximity to an overbearing, unrestrained, amount of pollution sources.
Emerging literature also characterizes the relationship between air pollution and its potential for neurotoxicity on the developing brain of children. The ONLY public high school in the 10th ward, George Washington High School (GWHS), is located across the street, a half-mile from the proposed General Iron operations. To add, Rowan Park and George Washington Elementary School (GWES) neighbor our local high school. Further, there is an air monitor located on the roof of GWHS which has reported some of the highest concentrations of particulate matter (PM) in the region. Although evidence suggests a reduction in, specifically, PM2.5, there is no safe threshold of exposure to this type of toxicant. The close proximity to students and children is especially of concern since General Iron is not the only pollution concern in the ward. Moreover, we have not seen any evidence suggesting the addition of businesses whose industry operations are confirmed to have annual pollution averages will improve the overall health of residents nearby.
Moving RMG/General Iron III business to the Southeast Side will continue an environmentally racist practice of concentrating pollution in communities that are not affluent or majority white. Figures we have utilized to support our demands are publicly available on the Chicago Health Atlas website. As we continue to align ourselves with the vision for Healthy Chicago 2025, which states, “A city where all people and all communities have power, are free from oppression and are strengthened by equitable access to resources, environments, and opportunities that promote optimal health and well-being.” We will continue to use evidence-based organizing to advocate for proactive policy and initiatives, distancing further from regressive approaches.
The figures in Table 1– sourced from the Chicago Health Atlas website, provide some details for chronic disease in the neighborhoods in the 10th Ward, further supporting our concerns and why we continue to urge the City to deny the permit.
- Diabetes rate:
- South Deering ranks #1 in the city
- South Chicago ranks #7
- East Side (no data provided)
- Diabetes Mortality rate:
- East Side ranks 14th
- South Deering ranks 30th
- South Chicago ranks 20th
- Asthma Rate:
- East Side: 15.7%
- South Chicago: 15.3%
- Cancer mortality rate:
- East Side ranks 35th
- South Deering ranks 19th
- South Chicago ranks 16th
However, we are not just health statistics. We are human beings whose lives are affected beyond the recorded numbers.
Environmental injustices, historically, are engineered on the Southeast side of Chicago, but never in our wildest imaginations did we anticipate multiple generations of Southeast side residents having to fight for cleaner air amid a global, respiratory, COVID-19 pandemic. It is unfathomable that environmental injustices faced by some of our ancestors remain parallel with our lives today.
The Southeast side has long been recognized as overburdened with pollution and industry, but efforts to definitively mitigate the harmful effects of such hazardous industry are insufficient. In May 2021, Chief Administrator of USEPA Michael Regan states, “Substantial data indicate the current conditions facing Chicago’s Southeast Side epitomize the problem of environmental injustice, resulting from more than a half-century of prior actions. [...] Since 2014, more than 75 facilities in the southeast area have been investigated by the U.S. EPA, Illinois EPA, and the City for noncompliance with the Clean Air Act.”
The Chicago Department of Public Health has repeatedly indicated that they are actively engaging with the community and are committed to racial equity; however, thus far, these values have not been upheld. To date, the City of Chicago has hosted two Public Engagement Sessions regarding the ongoing cumulative Health Impact Assessment(HIA) mandated by the Federal EPA’s Administrator Michael Regan in May of 2021. A few community meetings and public comment sessions fall woefully short of your own standards for community engagement. The EPA’s HIA Guidelines demonstrate that a potential benefit of conducting an HIA involves “empowering affected communities by engaging them in the HIA process and decisions that affect them; advancing health equity by considering impacts across the population.” However, residents and community organizations believe CDPH is falling far short of its ethical duty to protect the health and well-being of Chicago residents. Public Health officials’ responsibility is not to protect the rights of a company to profit at the expense of our health.
Additionally, we call out the lack of transparency and accountability to rush the HIA process during the holidays. Despite the announcement of the second HIA meeting with a month’s notice, the following issues occurred:
- There was no way to register for the meeting until two days prior.
- It was rescheduled by CDPH without any input from the community or advance notice.
- It was scheduled by CDPH in conflict with a previously scheduled Southeast Side community meeting on the City Plan.
- It was scheduled by CDPH as an in-person meeting despite concerns about COVID-19 and high rates of transmission in the 10th ward.
- The location was not easily accessible by public transit.
- Only two days notice was given when the meeting was switched to virtual.
- Registration for the event was cut off by CDPH prior to the meeting date, limiting the number of local residents who could actually participate.
- Resident and environmental justice advocacy was reduced to a space where polluting entities were present, when this was about the health of our community, not their interest in profit.
This controversial operating permit is a continuation of the City of Chicago's legacy of racist policies and questionable practices. Historically, the city has long employed unethical solid waste storage and has patterns of zoning and industrial practices to concentrate pollution in communities that are not predominantly white or affluent. We make reference to the known buy-outs of elected officials during the fly-dumping era of the 1980s with solid waste management corporations.
Further, we recognize the Reserve Management Group has made contributions to 10th ward Alderwoman Susan Sadlowski-Garza’s political campaign. We raise this issue because we have noticed Alderwoman Garza’s physical absence from in-person events we have hosted to protest the relocation and her exceedingly tamed advocacy for her constituents with regards to this process. The recent revelation of scolding, swearing text messages between Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Ald. Garza, disparaging community members advocating for environmental justice, are completely unacceptable and disturbing at best, and at worst, a stance to stifle the community engagement process. Moreover, we are concerned about her objectivity regarding this permitting process and continue to ask for more transparency regarding any potential conflicts of interest. We, therefore, continue to strongly urge Alderwoman Garza to leverage her position of power and associated networks to ensure that the community’s health is not further sacrificed in favor of corporate entities and profit.
Despite the overwhelming support to deny the permit, the City has provided no indication of their intent to comply with community residents' demands. If CDPH were to be sincere in their efforts to promote health equity and address environmental racism; then the determination would be clear. It is well documented that the Southeast side is already overburdened by pollution and suffers from substantial health disparities, summarized in Table 1. To open the RMG/General Iron III metal scrapping facility, in any capacity (with even the most rigid standards and expectations), would only exacerbate these existing disparities.
Again, we urge CDPH and Mayor Lightfoot to deny the permit for RMG/General Iron III. We will continue to use evidence-based organizing to advocate for proactive policy and initiatives, distancing further from regressive approaches, which disproportionately affect working-class communities on the south & west sides of Chicago that are predominantly African American and Latinx. We believe in economic enrichment and development for our community and those alike, but not at the expense of the health of our neighbors and their families. We, therefore, uphold the values set forth in the vision for Healthy Chicago 2025: “A city where all people and all communities have power, are free from oppression and are strengthened by equitable access to resources, environments and opportunities that promote optimal health and well-being.”
CDPH has all of the information necessary to deny this operational permit to RMG/Southside Recycling. This is the second holiday season that we contended with the threat of another polluter coming into our community rather than reconnecting with our families and attempting to heal from the stress of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. We do not want to spend another holiday season fighting for the fundamental human right to breathe clean air and live in a community that is not poisoning us. We will not continue to be your air filters. We will not continue to be the city’s dumping ground for debilitating neurotoxins and hazardous material. It is time to do the right thing and deny the permit.