This coverage is made possible through a partnership between WBEZ and Grist, a nonprofit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future. Sign up for WBEZ newsletters to get local news you can trust.

Environmental justice activists in Chicago claimed a major victory last week when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ruled that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency needs to revamp its process for permitting polluting industries in residential neighborhoods. 

The announcement comes four years after the Illinois EPA approved the move of General Iron, a scrap metal operation, to the city’s Southeast Side, a neighborhood already heavily polluted. The approval set off months of protests, a hunger strike, and the civil rights complaint filed with the federal EPA.

While the resolution does not say that the agency violated any anti-discrimination laws, the agreement does compel the Illinois EPA to make sweeping changes to its air-permitting process. It’s a rare victory for community groups that cite race-based discrimination when it comes to pollution, especially when working through the federal government.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“I think it is very significant,” said Catherine Coleman Flowers, a member of the Biden administration’s White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. 

“It also proves, you know, that the process does work and it puts something in the toolbox for [environmental justice] communities to seek some type of justice,” she said.

Óscar Sanchez is co-executive director of Southeast Environmental Task Force, a grassroots organization fighting polluting industries in the area. His organization is one of two community groups that originally filed the civil rights complaint. He called the agreement monumental. 

Oscar Sanchez walks down a sidewalk holding a clipboard.
Óscar Sanchez in his South Side neighborhood in December 2022. He went on a hunger strike to close the scrap metal operator. Miranda Zanca for YR Media and CatchLight Local

“This is something that should not be taken lightly,” Sanchez said. “But at the same time, we are also looking forward to seeing how this administration continues to do this type of work to actually improve public health.”

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The settlement between the U.S. EPA and the Illinois EPA includes that the agency enact expansive changes that center community input as well as the history of the company applying for the permit. This is significant, according to Gina Ramirez, Midwest regional lead of the National Resources Defense Council.

“General Iron had a long history of being a really bad neighbor, a lot of EPA violations,” Ramirez said. “I mean, it even blew up right before the state issued its permit. And the fact that they weren’t considering that at all was just like a huge red flag. So just the fact that that’s in this agreement is a really big deal to me.”

Despite the company’s troubled history, which included explosions and a 2015 fire, a temporary shutdown in 2016 after failing a building inspection, and an EPA citation in 2018, it was still granted a permit to move to the Southeast Side neighborhood in 2020 by the IEPA. The facility was eventually closed in 2021 after entering an agreement with then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The $80 million metal shredding operation was fully rebuilt on the city’s South Side and renamed Southside Recycling. 

Other aspects of the settlement include consideration of vulnerable groups and greater inclusion for non-English speakers, which both were points of contention in this latest permit process for the metal scrapper. The proposed facility would have been located right next to a high school, something that current provisions would not have allowed. 

The front of George Washington High School with the letters 'You Are Beautiful' in the windows.
George Washington High School is across the street from the relocated General Iron facility on Chicago’s South Side. The plant sits idle. Jamie Kelter Davis / The Washington Post via Getty Images

For a long time, Sanchez said that polluting industries and longstanding policies worked against the interest and livelihood of the city’s most vulnerable communities. Now, he’s cautiously optimistic that’s beginning to change. 

“It means that we’re being heard, that we’re being listened to,” Sanchez said. “This means that people are paying attention, this means that organizing works.” 

Existing environmental laws that focus on trying to ensure clean air, water, and soil aren’t always effective in tackling pollution in communities of color, according to Debbie Chizewer, a managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Chicago office. This is because there’s no statute to protect people from the type of discrimination that ends up situating industrial facilities next to Black and Latino neighborhoods. 

That’s why in Chicago, and across the country, activists are filing complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI prohibits states, city governments, and other recipients of taxpayer dollars from discriminating on the basis of race and national origin among other protected classes. 

Under the provision, federal agencies are empowered to withhold funding from recipients, launch investigations, and bring partners into compliance via a negotiated settlement.

While the Biden administration’s EPA has made significant financial investments in pursuing goals like environmental justice, civil rights complaints like the ones filed by activists in Chicago have mostly not panned out the way advocates had hoped. Only two civil rights complaints filed to the Environmental Protection Agency have been resolved since 2021. 

“The Biden administration had been making commitments to strengthen its civil rights enforcement,” said Chizewer, “But historically, I think there are one or two successful [U.S. EPA] complaints that resulted in findings of discrimination.”

Last year, the EPA dropped three high-profile civil rights investigations in Louisiana, where Black communities are exposed to pollutants at seven times the rate of white communities. The complaints were about the rights of people in “Cancer Alley” to not be discriminated against on the basis of race — including the right not to be disproportionately exposed to toxic and cancer-causing chemicals. 

“That was a big blow,” said Chizewer. “The Louisiana case was a big blow.” 

For Ramirez, she’s celebrating this moment alongside her colleagues, but it is not lost on her how rare this outcome is. 

”It’s like a bittersweet moment for me,” Ramirez said. “Because I know that there’s other civil rights complaints in red states that have been having a really hard time being settled or they’ve been thrown out.” 

The metal scrapper cited in the complaint first announced its move in 2018 from Lincoln Park, a white, affluent neighborhood on the city’s North Side, to the Southeast Side, a low-income, Latino and Black neighborhood that has been home to industrial polluters for more than a century. 

Activists used a variety of tactics to stop the proposed move, including filing a separate civil rights complaint against the city of Chicago with the Department of Housing and Urban Development that was settled last year just as Lightfoot left office. They also filed this civil rights complaint against the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency with the U.S. EPA, claiming that the state agency did not fulfill its duty to protect this pollution-burdened community by issuing the permit.

The complaint with the U.S. EPA was a result of organizers trying to use every tool in their arsenal to stop the metal scrapper from opening. 

“We were so laser-focused on the Southeast Side,” said Ramirez. “We know that industry is just looking at us with hungry eyes all the time.” 

Organizers escalated the fight in 2021 with a hunger strike and protests, including one at Lightfoot’s house. Eventually, after years of community organizers putting pressure on elected officials, Mayor Lightfoot’s administration denied the permit. General Iron has not given up, though, and instead is still fighting the city in court to reopen the relocated facility. 

Ramirez is hoping that in the future, the increased pressure on the IEPA from the federal government will make them think twice about what types of industries they let into certain communities. For her, many of the additions from the civil rights complaint, like looking at a facility’s past history or including resources for non-English speakers, are things that should have already been happening.

“It shouldn’t have to be this hard to get these common sense rules in place,” she said. 

Editor’s note: NRDC and Earthjustice are advertisers with Grist. Advertisers have no role in Grist’s editorial decisions.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!