general iron rto
General Iron's regenerative thermal oxidizer is designed to reduce VOC emissions from its shredder.
DeAnne Toto

Updated: Chicago orders General Iron to close following explosion

General Iron says it is investigating the cause of the explosion.

May 20, 2020

General Iron’s ongoing battle with legislators on Chicago’s North Side entered a new chapter following explosions that occurred Monday, May 18, at its yard.

According to a report from 5Chicago, the incident happened after 9 a.m. at the company’s scrap yard and auto shredding facility in Chicago’s Ranch Triangle neighborhood on the North Side. Although no injuries were reported, Chicago’s Department of Buildings and the Chicago Fire Department ordered the location to close. According to the city, the facility will remain closed until an action plan is created and approved.

5Chicago reports that the city’s Department of Buildings released a statement that reads, “The business will remain closed, with the exception of regular on-site maintenance, machinery repairs and removal of finished materials from the site until a corrective action plan has been approved by the city and shared with the community.”

General Iron issued the following statement after the incident: “Shortly after 9 a.m. today, an explosion occurred within the metal shredding process at the General Iron metal recycling facility at 1909 N. Clifton Ave. No one was injured, and there was no ensuing fire after the initial incident. Shredding operations have ceased for the present time. We are thoroughly investigating all possible causes, including potential sabotage. We are fully cooperating with city officials.”

5Chicago cites a statement from Ald. Brian Hopkins that says General Iron will “be afforded due process in their attempt to prove that they can operate in compliance if allowed to reopen.”

Hopkins also said there was a "sudden increase in pollution readings detected in [the] surrounding residential neighborhood" following the blast, but 5Chicago reports that air quality tests did not reveal immediate health risks to area residents, with the Chicago Fire Department saying pollution levels did not appear to increase as a result of the explosion.

"The Chicago Department of Public Health is on-site to conduct further testing and evaluation, and the Fire Department is investigating the incident," according to a statement from the Chicago Fire Department that 5Chicago cites. "Should any environmental violation be determined, the city will issue citations immediately."

Hopkins reportedly has called for the "permanent and immediate closure of this hazardous facility."

Shredder explosions are not an unusual occurrence. Propane tanks, sealed gas containers, airbags and  lithium-ion batteries have been known to lead to explosions in auto shredders if not detected prior to processing.

General Iron and its shredder have been ongoing targets for area residents in recent years. The company recently invested $2 million to install a regenerative thermal oxidizer on its shredder, which is designed to reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The move was in response to the Environmental Protection Agency’s assertion that the company had the potential to emit VOCs in excess of the Title V major source threshold, though the company says it had not done so, nor did it operate close to its permitted levels.

General Iron and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agreed on an administrative consent order resolving the alleged violations the EPA issued the company in 2018.

The company, which is part of Stow, Ohio-based Reserve Management Group, is relocating its North Side operations, which are in a gentrifying area, to a site that the Reserve Management Group owns on Chicago’s South Side.

Earlier this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading throughout the U.S., a March 31 Chicago Tribune article portrayed some of the company’s neighbors as being “livid” that the scrap company has continued to operate. The article says a Lincoln Park neighborhood resident named Lara Compton, who is part of a group called Clean The North Branch, has written to the governor of Illinois to complain about perceived air pollution emanating from General Iron.


General Iron issued a second statement May 19 that reads:


"Professional engineers are on-site today to assess the damage caused by yesterday’s explosion and to continue a thorough investigation to determine the root cause. We will examine all possibilities and not speculate until the investigation is completed. We are thankful that no one was injured, but the reality is that the damage was severe enough that we are unable to operate until sufficient repairs are made. We will comply with every reasonable request and condition that the city imposes to ensure that public health and safety, as well as our employees and customers, are fully protected before resuming operations.

"We are equally committed to environmental protection. The Chicago Fire Department yesterday confirmed 'no increased pollution levels' and no 'apparent immediate health risk to residents and the surrounding community.' Recent tests, and recent visits by city and state officials, confirmed that the shredder and pollution control equipment were operating in full compliance with air quality requirements. The fact remains that no other local recycling facility can match General’s Iron’s capacity to handle the Chicago area’s volume of recyclable metal or has pollution control equipment that is the best available technology and ensures the lowest emissions rates."