Chicago Hunger Strike Against Recycling Plant Grows: “We’re Starving Ourselves to Save People’s Lives”

Activists oppose metal shredder moving to East Side, a low-income Latino community reeling from the effects of industrial pollution.

Hunger strikers on Chicago’s Southeast Side have gone nearly four weeks without food to protest against environmental racism, and now the city is beginning to reconsider its stance on the controversial metal shredder that started it all.

“General Iron Industries Inc”=
General Iron, a scrapyard in Chicago’s affluent North Side, faced a series of EPA violations until its managers closed it last year. Now, residents in the Southeast Side are protesting a new scrapyard – one they consider General Iron’s reincarnation – in their neighborhood. Photo by Patrick Houdek.

“I share your commitment to equity and fully understand that our frontline communities, particularly on the South and West Sides of Chicago, have been significantly impacted by environmental pollution and other compounding environmental issues, for multiple generations,” wrote Lori Lightfoot, the city’s mayor, in a letter from last Tuesday.

On 4 February, three community activists vowed to go without food until the city stops a metal shredder from moving into the East Side, a low-income Latino community already reeling from the effects of industrial pollution. Since then, eight others – including an elected city official – have joined the hunger strike. They held a candlelight vigil in front of city hall on Tuesday.

“It is immoral, it is discriminatory and we cannot allow [this plant to operate] in a pandemic when we can prevent it,” said Byron Sigcho-Lopez, the 25th ward alderman who has joined the hunger strike “as long as it’s needed”. On Friday, Sigcho-Lopez, a Democratic socialist who represents a majority-Latino neighborhood similarly affected by heavy industry, introduced a resolution to support the hunger strike, but a majority of Chicago city council, including the local alderman who has professed support of the hunger strike, voted to not consider it.

In December, Reserve Management Group (RMG), a metal recycling company, closed a similar scrapyard on the city’s predominantly white, affluent North Side. General Iron, as the scrapyard was known, had a history of EPA violations since at least 2006, the latest of which was issued in 2018 and resolved the following year. Southside Recycling – which will use some equipment from the General Iron facility, including pollution controls – is considered by residents and local activists to be its reincarnation.

Metal shredding can be a dangerous business. Dr. Susan Buchanan, public health professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, says the particulate matter that typically emanates from these facilities can cause severe respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. Steve Joseph, CEO of RMG, maintains the site “will be enclosed and removed from public view” and “almost nothing” about it “resembles General Iron”.

Grassroots organizers on the Southeast Side characterize the move as yet another example of environmental racism to hit the community, which has high rates of asthma. The area is already contaminated by businesses that dump more than a million pounds of toxins into the air every year. The permits that allowed the facility to start construction have come under scrutiny from federal investigators. The US EPA is currently reviewing complaints that Illinois EPA’s approval has further concentrated polluting industry in a majority Black and brown neighborhood, while the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (Hud) is investigating, with assistance from the US Department of Justice, the city’s role in facilitating the metal shredder’s move south.

“My team is working to fully evaluate the implications of these federal inquiries for this process,” Lightfoot wrote. In a separate letter uncovered by the Chicago Tribune, the mayor’s lawyers asked the US EPA for guidance, saying it was “crucial that the outcome of the city’s permitting process be based on a legitimate [Illinois EPA] authorization”, though that same legal department has denied the legitimacy of Hud’s investigation into the city.

Hunger strikers called Lightfoot’s response “insulting” in a joint statement. “We believe that this administration would sooner let Southeast Siders starve in our hunger strike than commit to taking any real steps to address the issues,” they wrote.

After reading the mayor’s statement, Yesenia Chavez said she had to lie down because of high-blood pressure. “We’re literally starving ourselves to save people’s lives, and for [the mayor] to keep mentioning she wants to continue a conversation with us is dismissing how we’re putting our health at risk right now,” said Chavez, a lifelong Southeast Side resident on day 22 of her hunger strike.

Environmental and social justice organizations across the city and the country have mobilized around the Southeast Side, pledging one-day hunger strikes in solidarity.

“As hard as it is to digest the city’s lackluster response, it’s more important for us to keep going toward environmental reform to save families being affected right now,” said Chavez. “One more death because of air pollution and industrial abuse is just one too many for us to accept.”

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