Federal housing officials are investigating why the city of Chicago is allowing a chronic polluter company to move its operation from a wealthy, largely white neighborhood to a low-income, predominantly Latino neighborhood.
The Ohio-based company that bought General Iron Industries — a clout-heavy scrap shredder with a long history of pollution problems — wants to move their operation from Lincoln Park on the city's North Side to a site on the Calumet River in the East Side neighborhood near Illinois' border with Indiana. It's an area where residential yards, baseball fields and playgrounds are already contaminated with heavy metals and toxic chemicals from other companies, including steelmakers that left decades ago.
After community activists complained and accused Mayor Lori Lightfoot's administration of violating provisions of the federal Fair Housing Act by adding yet another polluter to a neglected corner of the city, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development agreed to follow up on the complaint, according to a letter that was made public Tuesday.
The complaint urged federal officials to withhold lucrative grants until the city overhauls its land-use policies, the Chicago Tribune reported. Zoning and planning ordinances protect industries in certain parts of Chicago without considering the health and well-being of nearby residents, many of whom are Black and Latino, according to a recent city report on air quality throughout Chicago.
“Racist policies are killing our neighborhood by making it a dumping ground for the dirtiest and most dangerous polluters,” said Peggy Salazar, director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, one of three nonprofit groups that petitioned for federal intervention.
Though Lightfoot says she agrees with the complaints from activists, the Chicago Department of Public Health still approved one of at least two permits General Iron needs before completing its move. The department also has stopped meeting with community groups to discuss environmental justice concerns.
If other permits are granted, General Iron would be the latest tenant of an East Side manufacturing district that already includes facilities handling brain-damaging metals and toxic chemicals.
“This approach towards our communities has to change,” said Cheryl Johnson, director of People for Community Recovery, another nonprofit group behind the federal complaint. “It’s fundamental that our voices are heard if we are going to dismantle environmental racism in Chicago.”