Can you believe researchers found “poor air quality” around this picturesque site?
Can you believe researchers found “poor air quality” around this picturesque site? Credit: Patrick Houdek / FLICKR

Given that I’ve lived in this city all these years, you’d figure that I’ve seen it all.

But, no, every now and then something unexpected pops up, forcing me to exclaim: Damn, that’s outrageous—even for Chicago.

And so it was that last Thursday my eyes fell on the headline over an article by Brett Chase in the Sun-Times.

“Feds zero in on Emanuel administration’s role in General Iron move,” read the headline.

Uh-oh, Mayor Rahm in trouble?

Turns out that back in May 2018, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago were preparing to release a report documenting “poor air quality” around the General Iron scrap metal facility near the proposed Lincoln Yards development on the north side.

For reasons unstated, Emanuel administration officials were alarmed about the report, as Chase discovered by plowing through dozens of highly redacted e-mails.

Including one e-mail from Dr. Julie Morita, the health commissioner at the time, advising mayoral aides to go to UIC’s chancellor to kill the report.

“You may need to engage the Chancellor [Michael Amiridis] if you want this to be stopped,” Morita said in her e-mail.

That stopped me cold. Hardball politics from the health commissioner? That’s got to be a first. From a health commissioner, I’d expect advice that’s a little more, you know, healthy. Like, wear a mask. Or, eat your fruits and vegetables.

Clearly, prolonged exposure to Mayor Rahm has its impact. Perhaps UIC researchers should study that.

Of course, it’s not like Mayor Rahm needed a suggestion from the health commissioner (or anyone) “to engage the chancellor.” I’m sure he could have figured that out on his own.

For the record, Brett Chase dutifully collected responses from everyone involved.

Dr. Morita said she was “concerned the data [in the report] were incomplete and may be misunderstood” by neighbors.

Chancellor Amiridis said no one from the city contacted him about the report “and I would have immediately dismissed the idea if they asked.”

Robert Rivkin, one of the aides e-mailed by Morita, did not respond for comment. Another aide on the e-mail chain—David Reifman, former planning commissioner—directed questions to the city, even though he no longer works there. 

As for Mayor Rahm, he “declined to comment.”

Oh, look who’s caught a sudden case of cat’s got his tongue? Generally, Rahm can’t stop opining about things having nothing to do with Chicago. But ask about the shitty stuff that happened on his watch, and he turns into Greta Garbo.

Chase’s article got me thinking—why was the Emanuel administration so worried about that UIC report on General Iron?

We won’t know unless the city’s forced to turn over more e-mails, or un-redacts the ones it’s already released. And, really, city officials—who are you protecting with these redactions?

My working theory is that Rahm was worried about the Amazon deal. Follow me . . .

In the early months of 2018, Mayor Rahm and Governor Rauner teamed up to offer untold billions of your tax dollars to Jeff Bezos, one of the world’s richest men, to open an Amazon headquarters in town.

They also offered Bezos his choice of prime Chicago real estate to house that headquarters—including land around the General Iron site.

In March of 2018, Amazon site selectors got a tour of the proposed locations. Though, true to form, neither Rahm nor Rauner would tell us which ones.

“Amazon wants to do this on a very confidential basis,” the aforementioned Mr. Rivkin told Fran Spielman of the Sun-Times at the time. “Everybody is under strict nondisclosure. So, I really can’t talk about it.”

When Spielman pressed further, Rivkin said: “What about, ‘I can’t talk about it’ don’t you understand?”

Like I said: too much exposure to Mayor Rahm can be toxic to your health. Or at least your sense of humor.

For years, north siders have complained about noise and pollution produced by the General Iron facility. My theory is Mayor Rahm and his aides worried that too much attention drawn to problems with General Iron might scare off Amazon.

Well, Amazon saved us a lot of money by turning Rahm down. Thank you, Jeff Bezos.

In the meantime, General Iron closed its facility on the north side and sold its operation to Reserve Management Group. And RMG cut a deal with the Lightfoot administration allowing them to set up shop at 116th and Burley on the far southeast side.

Except . . .

Southeast-side residents asked a pertinent question that the Lightfoot administration can’t answer. 

Namely: If the facility is too dirty and noisy for north siders, why is it appropriate for the southeast siders? Who are already dealing with landfills and dumps and polluted sites.

Some southeast-side activists went on a hunger strike. Others filed a lawsuit, charging racial discrimination. The federal government is now investigating the matter.

It was going through court documents related to the federal investigation that Chase found the Emanuel administration e-mails. 

One of the biggest beneficiaries of General Iron moving to the southeast side is Sterling Bay, the developers of Lincoln Yards, which got that $1.3 billion TIF handout from the city.

But don’t feel too sorry about the Labkons, the family that ran General Iron. They’re selling their north-side property, and real estate experts figure it might fetch as much as $130 million.

In short, the southeast side gets the noisy shredder. The north side gets the swanky development—underwritten by millions in TIF handouts. And the rich get richer.

This is what passes for economic development in Chicago.

Much thanks to Brett Chase and Michael Hawthorne (environmental reporter at the Tribune) for the work you’ve done on this still-developing saga. I hope you keep digging—a little transparency is good for our health. Right up there with wearing a mask and eating your fruits and vegetables.  v