Don't Bring General Iron's Mess Down to the Southeast Side

Despite the links between air pollution and higher rates of COVID-19 deaths, Chicago’s most vulnerable are still being put in harm's way by the city’s dirtiest industrial facilities.

Scrap workers within a pile of scrap metal

Workers handling scrap metal near General Iron in Lincoln Park


Sebastián Hidalgo for NRDC

The recent explosions at General Iron are stark reminders that the pandemic hasn’t slowed things down for Chicago’s polluters. Despite the links between air pollution and higher rates of COVID-19 deaths, Chicago’s most vulnerable are still being put in harm's way by the city’s dirtiest industrial facilities.

For Chicagoans that live near industry, decades of exposure to harmful chemicals have damaged our bodies and lungs. Every time that we would go to the park, send our kids to school, or even go out to our backyard, we have to worry about these threats to our health.

Across Chicago, industry continues to do business as usual—or worse—and threaten our health while we shelter in place. In Little Village, the community was submerged in a giant cloud of toxic dust because a dishonest developer rushed the demolition of a smokestack in the old Crawford plant. In my neighborhood, we are dreading the arrival of General Iron, the notorious Lincoln Park polluter, that was shut down yesterday because of a pair of explosions.

Growing up in a working-class community of color in Chicago, I have always lived in the shadow of industry that has threatened my health with toxic pollution.

Years go by and we continue to wonder if things will ever get better. That’s because the City has not made a real effort to listen to residents and put our health above the profits of industry.

While the posh Lincoln Park neighborhood had a robust planning process to help cleaner and diverse developments like Lincoln Yards take the place of dangerous industry, neighborhoods of color are only being dumped with more polluters, including those moving directly to my community from Lincoln Park.

We need policies that center on public health and community expertise in decision making. We desperately need a grassroots ordinance that reforms the entire industrial land use permitting and zoning chain. A law that centers public health and community power in decision making.

The same communities that don’t have the option of working from home and live paycheck to paycheck also often do not have access to affordable health care. Communities of color bear the brunt of doing most of the work that is considered essential even though we live far from basics like good transportation and grocery stores. There are compounding issues that make this time particularly scary for communities like mine.

Recently, the Trump EPA has rolled back reporting and monitoring for polluters across the country because of the pandemic. There are some polluters that are probably rushing to the Illinois EPA, asking for an end to monitoring and pollution limits.

This is the worst possible time to threaten our lungs with more pollution from industry.

We can’t continue to ignore the fact that not every community faces the same risks during this pandemic.

The City and State both have the authority to put a hold on permitting new polluters. Both have the power to pump the brakes on enabling new pollution that can endanger our health during this time. The polluters that surround my neighborhood are far from being essential businesses. We certainly do not need more of them coming online in our already overburdened community during this time.

Although the inequalities that exist in our city are not new, we have a new opportunity to address them in light of the COVID pandemic and find new solutions that can outlast the crisis.

It’s clear that we can’t go back to business as usual.

Now is the time to think about how we can expand protections for our health in other areas like stopping industry from putting communities at risk. We desperately need a more holistic look at what will protect our health in the long run. Hopefully, coming out of this pandemic, we will implement the health and environmental protections we desperately need.

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