In the middle of a commercial and residential area of Waukegan, about 42 miles north of Chicago, are 70 acres of empty land dotted with wooden posts bearing toxic gas monitors.
This is Yeoman Creek Landfill, a former dumping ground for hazardous waste from homes and industry during the 1950s and 1960s. For decades it’s been a federal Superfund site – home to hazardous waste that was mismanaged badly enough to merit intervention by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
But now, it’s looking at a second life as a renewable energy facility.
Cleanup to address high levels of methane and other toxic gasses is largely complete, though the EPA is still monitoring the site.
The field isn’t suitable for many things, but for Paul Curran, it’s a business opportunity. His New York-based company, BQ Energy, is installing 20,000 solar panels on the Yeoman Creek site. He said it’s a $10 million project.
Curran said many Superfund sites, also known as “brownfields,” make ideal candidates for renewable energy facilities.
“You don’t want parks or houses or any kind of public access on these types of properties,” Curran said. “But solar needs a lot of real estate. We need places with sun that [don’t] have a lot of trees or other impediments.”
Waukegan Mayor Ann Taylor is enthusiastic about redeveloping the Yeoman Creek property.
“It’s a great thing to do with it because you are limited on what you can do on those sites,” she said.
There’s at least one more Superfund site in Waukegan that’s a candidate for the same kind of redevelopment. But Taylor said the next project doesn’t have to be solar. It will depend on what officials hear from the public.
“What I want to do is open it up for people to come to us with ideas,” she said.” I don’t want to tell people what I want.”
Cam Davis has seen the importance of local participation in decisions about how to repurpose toxic waste sites. In the 1990s, Davis served on the Citizens’ Advisory Group for the Superfund-led cleanup in Waukegan Harbor. He watched that project unfold over years, and now the site is mostly back to its normal function.
He compared the process of community engagement in a cleanup to a patient who advocates for herself in a healthcare setting – the patient ends up with an improved outcome.
“When we have a really engaged public, these cleanups tend to go better,” Davis said. “Agencies tend to do better at their jobs.”
The Yeoman Creek Landfill has important limitations on how it can be redeveloped. The landfill gas still underground at the site means that breaking ground isn’t an option.
But it’s still possible to put things on top of it – like solar panels.
And that idea is getting more and more traction nationwide. Curran’s company, which has built 19 renewable energy sites around the country and is at work on another 28, is having a hard time keeping up with demand.
“Unfortunately, there’s enough brownfields and landfill sites around the country that we turn down more properties and more projects than we do,” he said.
The solar panels at Yeoman Creek are scheduled to begin operating in 2023 and produce enough power for about 1,000 households every year.
Caroline Kubzansky covers the statehouse for WBEZ. Follow her @CKubzansky.
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