The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has begun removing lead-contaminated soil at an old smelter site in Chicago's mostly Hispanic Pilsen neighborhood, a three-month process that officials hope will make the lot safe enough for residential development.
Cleanup of the former Loewenthal Metals began Monday, and EPA officials planned to meet with residents on Tuesday night to discuss the project.
The facility operated as a lead and zinc smelter during the 1940s, but the polluted property has languished for decades even though it is near an elementary school. State environmental officials identified the contamination in 2006, but didn't refer the matter to the U.S. EPA until 2011. The city erected a fence around the site last winter.
Soil tests showed lead levels as high as 1,200 parts per million near the surface at the half-acre lot -- three times the threshold set by the EPA.
Lead can cause learning and behavior problems in children.
The Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, which helped push for the cleanup, issued a written statement praising the action.
"It is great to see a site that was so polluted for so long and escaped anyone's attention finally being cleaned up" said Jack Ailey, a PERRO member.
Crews will remove soil to about three feet below the surface, dispose of it off-site and replace it with clean soil.
Residents claimed another environmental victory last year when the city's last two coal-fired power plants, the Fisk Generating Station in Pilsen and the Crawford station in nearby Little Village, were closed permanently. Redevelopment proposals for those sites are being evaluated by Midwest Generation, which owned the plants.