Fisk and Crawford pass air and radiation tests, but lead persists at nearby smelters

EPA seeks neighbors to volunteer for soil testing.

March 20, 2013

Environmental tests at the former Fisk and Crawford coal plant sites showed dust concentrations and radiation levels typical for Chicago, Environmental Protection Agency officials reported Tuesday at a public forum in Walsh Elementary School.

But lead contamination data at other sites underscored the southwest side’s ongoing environmental challenges as it struggles to cleanup an industrial legacy that has jeopardized public health in the area.

The EPA recently announced its plans to take “emergency action” this spring to clean up the lead-contaminated Loewenthal Metals site, years after the dangerous heavy metal was first discovered in a vacant lot near Pilsen’s Walsh Elementary School.

After it was moved to action in part by a USA Today investigation, the government quelled an uncooperative landowner with a Department of Justice warrant ordering soil tests. Officials said they would pursue similar measures to access the property again if the property owner does not consent to the cleanup.

Now blocked off with a fence, the toxic site showed lead levels near the surface were more than 14 times the federal limit for areas where children play. When they dug a foot or more into the soil, EPA testers found levels as high as 23,000 parts per million — more than 57 times the limit. That suggests the landowner may have laid fresh soil down after the plant closed, said EPA’s Steve Faryan.

Officials also reviewed the results of soil tests at copper smelter H. Kramer and Co., which was the subject of lead-emissions complaints in 2011 and recently agreed in a court settlement to spend $3 million to curb its emissions. Lead levels at that site averaged nearly seven times the limit at the soil surface, and nearly 12 times at a depths greater than one foot.

Paul Ruesch coordinated the EPA’s air monitoring project at Fisk and Crawford. Ruesch, who lives with his wife and young daughter near the Fisk site, set up four stationary air monitors on all sides of the defunct power plant. To make sure no air escaped the network of Dataram monitors, he mounted another one to a baby carriage and wheeled the mobile unit around during the two eight-hour monitoring sessions.

Although the tests seemed to confirm the shuttered coal plants were no longer an air quality concern for the Southwest side community, Ruesch said his particulate matter readings spiked in sync with ongoing industrial activity on adjacent properties and with heavy traffic on nearby highways.

The EPA wants residents to volunteer their yards for soil testing to determine whether dangerous metals released by local industries over the years settled into the neighborhood. Residents interested in volunteering should contact Heriberto León at 312-886-6163 or leon.heriberto@epa.gov.

The EPA will hold another meeting in English and Spanish Thursday at Little Village High School at 3120 S. Kostner Ave.