By Michael Hawthorne Chicago Tribune
When the owners of an often-troubled scrap shredder announced they planned to move to Chicago’s heavily polluted Southeast Side, community organizers followed a familiar script.
They wrote letters urging city and state leaders to protect the low-income, predominantly Latino and Black neighborhood. They carried signs and banners in street protests. Though the pandemic robbed them of a chance to confront authorities in person, they logged in to virtual hearings and made their views clear.
Aides to Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot responded the way regulators almost always do: They began approving the permits Reserve Management Group needs to shred flattened cars, used appliances and other scrap along the Calumet River, telling the company’s neighbors that local ordinances and state laws gave them no other choice.
RMG’s opponents contend the policy decisions are immoral — if not illegal — examples of environmental racism. On Thursday, three of the activists escalated their campaign against the shredder by launching a hunger strike, supported online by religious leaders and community groups.
“I’ve spent so much time telling my students, telling everybody you’ve got to get involved with the democratic process,” said Chuck Stark, a science teacher at George Washington High School who joined the hunger strike. “But the system isn’t set up to take into account the concerns of ordinary people.”
Monitoring equipment on the high school roof routinely measures some of the dirtiest air in Chicago. RMG’s shredder, already under construction near Avenue O at 116th Street, would be a new source of air pollution within sight of the high school and Washington Elementary School.
Surrounding neighborhoods initially were built around steel mills that once provided thousands of jobs. RMG is among several industrial companies that bought the ruins after the steel industry abandoned Chicago during the 1970s and ’80s.
The hunger strike comes as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development take a closer look at city and state actions benefiting RMG. Civil rights investigators at the federal agencies are digging into why the Pritzker and Lightfoot administrations cleared the Southeast Side shredder after the Ohio-based company agreed to close a similar operation in Lincoln Park, a wealthy, largely white neighborhood on the city’s North Side.
“If (the shredder) wasn’t good enough for Lincoln Park, why is it good enough for the Southeast Side?” said Breanna Bertacchi, another hunger striker active in the group United Neighbors of the 10th Ward. Bertacchi and Stark are joined by Oscar Sanchez, co-founder of the Southeast Youth Alliance; other hunger strikers are expected to be announced next week.
The federal probes are an early test of the relationship between the mayor and governor, and President Joe Biden, a fellow Democrat who promises to make environmental justice a centerpiece of his administration.
An RMG spokesman declined to comment on the hunger strike. Last week the company called legal efforts on behalf of opponents “a desperate effort to stop a legally qualified business from operating pursuant to rigorous controls and conditions.”
By the federal government’s own definition, the Southeast Side already highlights the nation’s legacy of environmental racism.
Residential yards, baseball fields and playgrounds near RMG are contaminated with heavy metals and toxic chemicals from past and present operations. Nearby is Chicago’s latest addition to the EPA’s Superfund list of polluted sites. Many of the neighborhood’s existing industries are subject to more intensive scrutiny because of the combined burden of their pollution.
Neighbors are concerned about fallout from a new scrap shredder, noting that federal and city regulators cited the North Side operation multiple times for violating clean air and hazardous waste laws.
“This is not the first time our neighborhood has demanded that something should be done about the cumulative impacts,” said Olga Bautista, a member of the Southeast Environmental Task Force who appeared with the hunger strikers during an online forum. “It is clear the state and city have authority to protect the community, they just choose not to use it.”
Original article: chicagotribune.com