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Metal Scrap Yard General Iron Faces Growing Backlash From Pols, Neighbors

By Mina Bloom | February 4, 2016 5:29am
 General Iron, 1909 N. Clifton Ave., the day after the extra-alarm.
General Iron, 1909 N. Clifton Ave., the day after the extra-alarm.
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DNAinfo/Mina Bloom

LINCOLN PARK — A growing chorus of neighbors and community leaders, including local aldermen, want metal scrap yard General Iron out of Lincoln Park, citing safety and noise concerns. But a spokeswoman for General Iron contends that the century-old business has always been a "conscientious" neighbor.

Neighbors recently formalized their opposition with an online petition titled "General Iron - Does it Belong in Lincoln Park?" In it, the author points to explosions, including an extra-alarm fire in early December, and the alleged threat of "unknown contaminates" as reasons why it does not belong in the neighborhood. As of Wednesday afternoon, 31 people had signed the petition.

 The scrapyard fire was declared Hazmat Level 1 by the Fire Department about 9:35 a.m.
The scrapyard fire was declared Hazmat Level 1 by the Fire Department about 9:35 a.m.
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"There are many parts of the city where a scrap metal transfer station can operate safely without jeopardizing the health and well-being of residents who would otherwise live in close proximity to their facility," the petition reads.

General Iron has called the facility at 1909 N. Clifton Ave. home for more than 100 years. Run by the Labkon family for generations, the scrap yard reportedly shreds 2,000 tons of metal a day. It employs 108 workers, who make an average of over $70,000 a year, according to Terri Cornelius, a spokeswoman for General Iron. 

"We go above and beyond required environmental standards for our business and have had only one fire of any significance in over a decade," Cornelius said in a prepared statement, referring to the December blaze, which threw heavy plumes of smoke into the air that were visible from miles away.

In an inspection, officials with Chicago Department of Public Health and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District found there was no water runoff into the Chicago River or contaminants in the air following the fire, according to city documents.

One of the scrap yard's most vocal opponents is Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), who, along with Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), publicly called for General Iron's closure after the December fire. According to Hopkins, it was the scrap yard's second explosion last year, with another in July. Cornelius said July's incident was merely a "loud noise" — not an explosion.

"[General Iron] is not compatible with the neighborhood. It'd be in the community's best interest if they relocated," Hopkins told DNAinfo Chicago last week.

Hopkins also said the heavy number of long trucks going to and from General Iron through their driveway off North Avenue is creating a "significant" safety hazard.

"There have been a number of incidents over the years. The trucks that use it are long trucks, and they have to swing out into oncoming traffic to execute turns," he said.

Hopkins made an effort to fix the problem last year when he recruited Chicago Department of Transportation to conduct a study. Officials with the department concluded that the trucks were posing a danger to the area, so they installed a sign prohibiting left turns at the intersection.

But that sign was taken down without explanation.

"I have no knowledge of who took down the sign or why. I'm not clear on what happened, but a hazard represented by that driveway remains," Hopkins said.

A spokesman for the transportation department didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Hopkins believes the driveway should be closed altogether, or at least to all activity except right turn exits, which was the department's recommendation.

"To leave it as is, is unacceptable," he said. "All I know is General Iron would prefer to have this driveway as is. The needs and desires of this private industry should not take precedence over public safety."

Scott Nations, who served as the president for the RANCH Triangle neighborhood group last year, called the trucks a "dangerous menace." 

But Cornelius expressed confusion over the current backlash, saying the city helped General Iron create a "safe way to use North Avenue" 10 years ago. 

"We don’t understand why there are concerns now about this road when CDOT helped us create it," she wrote.

Nations, who has lived in Lincoln Park since 1996, said complaints against General Iron are nothing new but  that the December fire galvanized neighbors.

"When I was president, the overwhelming subject of complaints was General Iron," he said.

Nations said General Iron has certain "freedoms" because it's situated in a planned manufacturing district, an industrial zoning designation he believes is outdated. He penned an opinion piece on the subject for Crain's last year.

"Their hours of operation are more liberal because of the [planned manufacturing district] and the amount of noise they can make is increased because of the" district, Nations said.

Hopkins told Crain's this week he wants to get rid of Clybourn Corridor's industrial zoning, which would widen the possibilities for redevelopment. 

According to Crain's, Hopkins has approached the city's department of planning and development to remove the designation. 

The planned manufacturing district was originally created to protect high-paying industrial jobs and protect the area from pressure by developers. Although Finkl Steel left the district, proponents of keeping the designation argue the planned manufacturing district was a major reason why Finkl was able to grow to a point where it had to move.

Randy Steinmeyer, the current president of RANCH Triangle, said dropping the designation could mean the end of General Iron.

He said while the Labkons have been accommodating over the years, "more people live in Lincoln Park now." 

"They've tried to be as accommodating as possible," he said of the Labkon family. "It's one of those things where they've got a business that's maybe not conducive to being in a heavily populated area."

One group that wants to see General Iron stay in the neighborhood is North Branch Works, a community organization that has long fought to keep industrial jobs in the area. In its weekly newsletter, the organization said General Iron has a "reputation within the industry for being a responsible operator that goes above and beyond the required environmental standards."

"General Iron is responsible for recycling a large percentage of Chicago’s scrap metal that would otherwise be sent to landfills or discarded in a dangerous and irresponsible manner. We also have 7 inspectors who screen the materials before processing," Cornelius wrote.

"We understand that with Finkl Steel gone, our neighbors have differing opinions about the future of our facility. The fact is that General Iron has operated in this community for more than 100 years and we have always been good, conscientious neighbors."

Cornelius added that General Iron was the first facility in the country to enclose its shredder in a steel building with 10-inch thick walls to "contain noise and improve safety."

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