EPA Begins Clean Up in Little Village

September 9, 2008

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Bulldozers began removing brush and debris from the Celotex Site. (WBEZ/Alexandra Salomon)
Little Village has numerous environmental problems. It's home to one of the region's largest coal burning power plants. It lacks green space. And on the neighborhood's East Side there's an area that's been designated a Superfund site. The Environmental Protection Agency spent several years surveying the land and testing the soil for contamination. Earlier this year, as part of Chicago Matters: Growing Forward, we spoke with residents living near the site. Now that clean up on the site has begun, Chicago Public Radio went back to the neighborhood.

ambi: bulldozer

A lone bulldozer is clearing some rocks from the southern end of a 22 acre empty lot once owned by the Celotex Corporation, a company that shut its doors in the early 80s.

Some men wearing hard hats are walking around surveying the area. They're contractors for Honeywell, the company the EPA has ordered to clean up the land.

It's a hazardous waste site, what the federal government calls a Superfund site. The soil here contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a group of chemicals believed to cause cancer.

But the EPA doesn't plan to remove the contaminated soil. It will re-grade the side slopes so there is less of an angle and the land is more stable. Two feet of material will be placed on top of the entire site.

SLEBODA: The purpose of containment is to prevent risk of exposure. If it's not moving and not leaking and not highly toxic than we'd rather leave it in place because there is a whole other set of risks associated with moving it and trucking it to some place else, to a landfill that has to be monitored.

That's Jena Sleboda, the EPA project manager for the Celotex site. She says that keeping the contamination in place is a very common solution for these types of sites.

In Little Village, Sleboda says the only risk for exposure is if someone touched the contaminated soil and and it wound up in their mouth.

And when asked if there will be any sort of public health risk once the work is complete, Sleboda says:

SLEBODA: No. Unless there is an earthquake there is really no risk.

The clean up involves clearing away brush and debris, regrading the land, putting down the cover material and building a new fence.

Weather permitting, work is expected to be completed by next summer. Under the Superfund mandate, the EPA will continue to monitor the site, including comprehensive soil sampling every five years.

The neighborhood has been waiting for the contamination to get cleaned up. But no one's come out to watch the bulldozers.

It's not because they don't care, says Juan Guzman. He says there's just a lot of skepticism.

GUZMAN: I think it's just a facade. They're just out there. I mean they just come here, show up when they want, push some rocks around. I mean I could do that and say yeah I'm cleaning it up. But I'm not seeing nothing else. You can kick dirt around as much as you want but there's still the contamination.

It's unclear what will happen to the land once the clean up is complete.

A spokesman says the city's Department of Planning and Development is trying to buy the property so they can make it into a park.

But residents say they've been hearing that for years.

Maria Nolasco has lived near Celotex for a decade. She'd like to have a park close by for her three kids. But she's reticent, doubtful that anything is going to happen anytime soon.

NOLASCO: We've understood that they want to build a park but we've lost hope because we haven't seen anything clear. We don't know what year that's supposed to happen or if it's definitely going to happen. Nothing is certain for us.

But one local group is certain. Last week, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, held a meeting with residents to discuss the future park's design.