Pollution, politics at heart of push to move century-old recycling facility out of Lincoln Park

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The I-Team's exclusive interview with the owner of a company caught in a citywide battle.

An ABC 7 I-Team Exclusive
General Iron is a fourth generation family run scrap metal recycling facility in a fast-changing section of Chicago's 2nd Ward. One of the owners, Adam Labkon, says the ward's first-term alderman has an agenda to shut the company down.

Alderman Brian Hopkins admitted to the I-Team he started requesting stricter enforcement of existing laws once he took office because while he was campaigning neighbors complained about the smell, noise and air pollution they said was coming from General Iron.

Most industrial companies have left the Clybourn Corridor but General Iron and a couple others remain. The century-old business shreds about 6 million pounds of end-of-life vehicles, appliances and other scraps every day.

Neighbors said a 2015 fire at the facility and a 2016 city shutdown for a variety of code violations worried them. Many said they have contacted the Chicago Department of Public Health and the Environmental Protection Agency about pollution concerns.

"I can't say we don't create noise and we don't create dust but we have certainly spent all the resources to be the best we can be and certainly the best in Chicago," Labkon said.

Apparently that was not good enough for the EPA. In July, General Iron was slapped with a violation for emitting excessive amounts of volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs, into the air. The company was also cited for not having a proper pollution permit.

The EPA said it does not discuss ongoing enforcement actions. According to its website, General Iron has been under investigation by the agency at least three times in the past 20 years.

As a result of this latest citation, Labkon said they will install a regenerative thermal oxidizer. An RTO is an industrial oven that burns off dangerous pollutants. The company could face a fine and may have to take other remedial steps to come into compliance. Both the EPA and General Iron told the I-Team they are working productively to address the issues in the violation.

At a heated City Council committee hearing in September, Ald. Hopkins requested the revocation of a waiver that allows General Iron to operate between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. The motion did not pass, but General Iron executives said it was just one example of the alderman trying to make business difficult for the company.

Another issue is the driveway off of North Avenue that serves as the main entrance for trucks coming to and from the facility. It is set to close January 1.

"I passed the ordinance to close that. It's a safety hazard. Six hundred trucks going in and coming out of the driveway on North Avenue hauling large amounts of debris that fell onto the roadway. That's just not a good idea in any book," Ald. Hopkins said.

According to General Iron, the Department of Public Health used to visit once a month. Now the company says inspections happen every week to make sure they are not accepting unauthorized materials and to answer noise and odor complaints.

The city's health department declined the I-Team's requests for an interview and, oddly, referred us to Alderman Hopkins' office. Hopkins said the company is going to have to yield to the pressure from the neighborhood and either shut down or relocate.

Labkon told ABC 7 Hopkins has won.

"We've announced publicly that we're leaving so we'd like to be able to operate for the two or so years to be able to build out the new facility and move," he said.

Alderman Hopkins tells the I-Team he doesn't believe General Iron plans to leave Lincoln Park anytime soon. The owners dispute that and said the project is moving ahead at a cost of about $65 million dollars.

Residents and leaders who live near the proposed new site on the Southeast Side say they are concerned about the shredding operation moving to their neighborhood.

Click here to view the EPA's Detailed Facility Report
Related Topics:
politicsI-Teamhealthrecyclingpollutionchicago city councilexclusiveChicagoLincoln Park
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