Alleging environmental racism and clout, a federal suit filed Wednesday targets Mayor Lightfoot and the city health department.
A pair of pastors are asking a federal court to stop the city from allowing General Iron’s metal-shredding operation to open on the Southeast Side, saying it violates residents’ civil rights.
Alleging environmental racism fueled by political clout, the South Side pastors are suing Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the city and its health department and asking the court for an injunction to prevent the final permit required to move operations from white, affluent Lincoln Park to the predominantly Black and Latino Southeast Side.
The Rev. Roosevelt Watkins III, senior pastor at Bethlehem Star Church, and the Rev. Richard Martinez of the Nehemiah Family Fellowship, filed the suit Wednesday in the U.S District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Watkins is also founder of the social justice group Pastors United for Change.
The pastors note that the Lightfoot Administration has acknowledged that Black and Latino communities on the South and West Sides live with a disproportionate level of air pollution than other parts of the city. They request federal funding for the city’s health programs be halted until the city ends “racist practices.”
“We will review the lawsuit and respond in due time,” Chicago Public Health spokesman Andrew Buchanan said. General Iron hasn’t filed a full application for its final permit, he said.
The complaint alleges that money and clout influenced Lightfoot and key aldermen in helping arrange for General Iron’s operations to move from Lincoln Park — to make way for the multibillion dollar Lincoln Yards development — to an East Side industrial area.
“General Iron and its owners ‘paid to play’ (and in this case paid to pollute), paying a dozen lobbyists over $500,000,” the lawsuit said.
The suit singled out politically connected lobbyist Victor Reyes, who represented General Iron in 2019 but has not yet listed the business or its owner on city lobbyist disclosure statements so far this year. Reyes, who didn’t return a call seeking comment, corresponded and arranged to meet multiple city department heads and other officials at City Hall on behalf of General Iron during Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Administration in 2017 and 2018, email records filed with the lawsuit show.
Former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins also worked for General Iron’s owner to “work behind the scenes with city officials and push through approvals,” the lawsuit claims. Collins, a former colleague and political donor to Lightfoot, was employed by General Iron prior to Lightfoot becoming mayor. In April 2018, Collins and a General Iron executive arranged to meet with a number of city officials including Emanuel’s then Deputy Mayor Robert Rivkin three months before the company announced the sale of its operations and a planned move to the Southeast Side, emails show.
“Pat Collins and Victor Reyes, unlike members of the communities, were able to gain private access to highest-level city officials and hold personal meetings with city officials to push General Iron’s agenda,” the suit alleges.
Collins disagreed, telling the Sun-Times, “as a lawyer I have represented my client in the last two administrations and have done so transparently and appropriately.”
The suit also said tens of thousands of dollars in political contributions were made on behalf of General Iron’s ownership to key aldermen, including Tom Tunney (44th), who chairs the City Council’s zoning committee, and Scott Waguespack (32nd), who chairs the finance committee.
“Money in Chicago always speaks louder than the voices of African-American and Hispanic residents and that has not changed even after an election where anti-corruption promises were made,” the lawsuit said.
In a statement, General Iron’s owner Reserve Management Group said the lawsuit included “numerous scurrilous and outrageously false allegations.”
“The actions the company and its representatives have taken under current and prior administrations have been proper and transparent. The city has been direct and tough throughout the process.”
The lawsuit is separate from a complaint filed with federal housing authorities by South Side community groups alleging that residents’ civil rights were violated under the U.S. Fair Housing Act.
The pastors are represented by Chicago lawyer Victor Henderson who was an attorney for Jackie Robinson West Little League families in 2015 and more recently filed a lawsuit against the city’s water department that alleged a hostile and discriminatory workplace for Black employees.
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.