A federal judge in Illinois has refused to halt city permits for a contested metal recycling plant slated to be built in a pollution-burdened neighborhood in South Chicago.
Judge Mary Rowland of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois said Wednesday that Chicago residents couldn’t prove discrimination was involved in the decision to move a General Iron shredding facility from North Chicago to their neighborhood on the Southeast Side.
Residents Pastor Richard Martinez, Jocelyn Rangel and Roni-Nicole Facen wanted an injunction to freeze the permits that would give the plant the greenlight to relocate to their community.
Rowland said the court shares concerns about the pollution burdens of marginalized communities. But she couldn’t find evidence of intentional discrimination at either the permit zoning hearings or the city’s 2020 rules on recycling facilities.
“Considering existing precedent, Plaintiffs have not met their burden to show how they will prove the key elements of their case,” she continued.
Plaintiffs’ lawyer Victor Henderson of the Cochran Law Firm Chicago said in a statement that “anyone with a conscience on the City Council” should join in urging Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) to deny the permit.
“This injustice cannot stand,” he said, adding that working-class neighborhoods have continually borne environmental racism upheld by “power brokers.”
The city didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Southeast Side residents have been pushing back against the plant’s plans for years, arguing that the relocation would further pollute the air in a neighborhood already surrounded by heavy industry.
Plant owners Reserve Management Group or RMG have been working since 2019 to move their General Iron facility, rebranded as “Southside Recycling,” from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side.
The new location—adjacent to a predominately Black and Latino community—is zoned for heavy facilities and manufacturing. The old North Chicago location was next to a plot slated for a billion-dollar commercial and residential development.
Southeast Side residents appealed the issue to the federal government, which yielded two investigations into discrimination claims against the state EPA permits and city re-zoning.
Lightfoot’s office also stalled permit approvals temporarily, pending more information from RMG about the impacts of the plant but hasn’t established a deadline on a final decision.
Equal protection violations are hard to pin down in these kinds of facility cases given the “intentional” discrimination standard, said Clifford Villa, a University of New Mexico law professor who studies environmental justice.
Though disappointing, the court did apply “a fairly standard legal analysis” to reach its conclusion given the precedent, Villa said.
Some advocates hope that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 could be amended under the proposed Environmental Justice For All Act. This would open the door for suits based on “disparate impact” discrimination, which is based on seemingly neutral policies that have an outsized negative impact on marginalized groups.
University of Denver law professor Wyatt Sassman said in an email that the amendment could be a “game changer” for communities bringing cases like these, but is only one tool in the box.
“Those amendments will not be a standalone solution for most communities, and certainly no replacement for an EPA or HUD that takes its obligations under civil rights law seriously,” he said.
The case is Martinez v. City Of Chicago, N.D. Ill., No. 20-cv-6252, Memorandum and Order 4/14/21