DuPage leaders on W. Chicago thorium cleanup funds: 'Pay it now'
DuPage County officials are calling on the federal government to provide roughly $30 million to complete an environmental cleanup at the former Kerr-McGee factory site in West Chicago.
After officials spent decades and roughly $1.2 billion cleaning area sites polluted with radioactive thorium waste from the former factory, the environmental response trust overseeing the work is in jeopardy of running out of money because it hasn't received federal funding since fiscal 2008.
So while bulldozers were moving soil Tuesday on the roughly 60-acre property, part of the site remains contaminated. Officials estimate it will cost $30 million to clean it.
The hope is to get the money from the Department of Energy's Title X program, which provided reimbursements to West Chicago for previous work.
"If this were a football game, we're on the five-yard line," said Kurt Stimpson, who manages the West Chicago Environmental Response Trust. "We need the money that the (Department of Energy) owes us ... to finish this."
Earlier this month, the U.S. House approved legislation that provides $20 million to reimburse work at cleanup projects nationwide. If the Senate approves the measure by the end of September, nearly $6 million of that money could be used in West Chicago.
U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, who led a coalition to secure House passage of the $20 million, said he also wants funding restored to the Title X program so the city can apply for future reimbursements.
"The federal government has a legal obligation," the Wheaton Republican said. "They've got to pay the money at some point. So pay it now and let's get it done."
The factory, which opened in 1931 under the ownership of the Lindsay Light and Chemical Co., for years produced thorium as part of its gaslight mantle production process and the early development of the atomic bomb. Kerr-McGee bought the factory in 1967, only to close it in 1973.
The process created a sandlike material that the factory made available to residents for landscaping and building projects before it was determined that thorium causes an increase in cancer.
In addition, a storm sewer from the factory site carried thorium to nearby Kress Creek and the West Branch of the DuPage River.
Since the massive cleanup began, thorium has been removed from the waterways, hundreds of individual residential properties, Reed-Keppler Park and a wastewater treatment plant.
All that remains is to remediate one residential property and part of the old factory site. The cleanup of the residential property will be completed this year, officials said.
While most of the former factory site has been cleaned, the remediation couldn't be completed until after the other projects were done. That's because contaminated material from those projects was temporarily stored on the site until it could be shipped to a Utah desert.
City officials say the remaining trace amounts of thorium no longer pose a threat. Still, the material must be removed before the property can be developed.
West Chicago Mayor Ruben Pineda said he wants the site, surrounded by an aging fence topped with barbed wire, to become "a beautiful park."
"It is my upmost hope that ... one day soon an online search of West Chicago will place Kerr-McGee and thorium in the right place -- in the past," he said.
What Pineda doesn't want is for work to cease before the remediation is done.
"By not securing the essential Title X funds, the cleanup efforts will stop and the city will be left with thorium-impacted materials for an indefinite period of time," he said, "exactly the outcome the city and its residents fought so hard to prevent."