LINCOLN PARK — Local aldermen and community organization North Branch Works are at odds over the future of metal scrap yard General Iron Industries Inc. after an extra-alarm fire erupted there earlier this month.
Last week, Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), whose ward includes the facility, and Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) publicly called for the closure of General Iron, 1909 N. Clifton Ave., after the metals wholesaler — which has been run by the Labkon family for generations — erupted in explosions and threw large plumes of smoke into the air that were visible from miles away on Dec. 6. But community organization North Branch Works is urging elected officials to "recognize the value" of the family-owned company, which it calls "essential."
In a prepared statement released late Friday, North Branch Works, an organization that has long fought to protect industrial jobs, said the fire was "the first of any significance in over 10 years" at General Iron.
It went on, saying General Iron has a "reputation within the industry for being a responsible operator that goes above and beyond the required environmental standards."
"General Iron has been in the essential business of recycling for over a century and currently employs over 100 people. We support General Iron and encourage our elected officials to recognize the value of a long-standing family-owned company that is committed to being a good neighbor to our community," the statement reads.
The statement was issued in response Hopkins and Smith, who immediately called for General Iron's closure after the fire. Hopkins said General Iron lacks a proper drainage system and launched an investigation to find out whether contaminates were released into the Chicago River. He also said it wasn't the first explosion of its kind at General Iron, referencing an earlier explosion in July.
In an interview last week, Hopkins said at the time that various agencies were still testing the water and air quality and he was waiting for the results to come back.
According to the statement from North Branch Works, no water from the fire flowed into the Chicago River thanks to the work of outside civil engineers and General Iron's water treatment system.
Hopkins' office could not immediately confirm that information late Friday. The owners of General Iron did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
'Out of step with the direction of our community'
In a prepared statement, Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) said she and Hopkins agree that "it is becoming apparent that this sort of use is out of step with the direction of our community."
She is referring to the continuing redevelopment of the Planned Manufacturing District along the North Branch of the Chicago River, an industrial area that is seeing a lot of changes these days. Real estate developers are continuing to eye the former A. Finkl & Sons steel mill site and Goose Island is turning into a tech hub.
Hopkins said the last time he met with General Iron was several months ago — before the July explosion — to talk about possibly moving the business.
"I suggested that I would be willing to help them with relocation assistance. That's where we left it. I've had no further contact with them," he said.
But after the recent incident, Hopkins said he is ramping up his efforts to get rid of General Iron by "continuing to work with the regulatory agencies to determine what's being stored on the site, what chemicals were found in the pile of burning debris and document some of the things neighbors have been complaining about for years like offensive odors and loud explosions," he said.
When asked about the potential loss of jobs, Hopkins said General Iron only employs around 25 people, which is much less than the figure North Branch Works provided. An old Tribune article said General Iron employed 85 people in 2004.
"They're relatively low-paying jobs as well. These are not the type of jobs that are worth fighting for in a neighborhood that has so much potential for a greater economic benefit and would not pose a health hazard to the neighborhood," Hopkins said.
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