Lawmakers press for more thorium cleanup money
With money running out to pay for removal of radioactive thorium waste at a former factory site in West Chicago, local officials are appealing to the federal government for help.
So far, their request for as much as $40 million in federal funding for the cleanup hasn't been granted.
On Monday, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk and U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam said they want to change that by working to get money from the Department of Energy's Title X program, which reimburses communities that participated in the atomic energy program. West Chicago received Title X reimbursements for previous cleanup work.
The project hasn't received federal funding since 2009, Roskam said during a visit he and Kirk made to the site. "We're so close. Let's just get this done and get it cleaned up."
In July, the U.S. House approved legislation that provides $20 million to reimburse work at cleanup projects nationwide. Nearly $6 million of that money could be used in West Chicago.
But the Senate hasn't approved the measure. It's proposing legislation that would cut the funding amount to $10 million.
Kirk said his goal is to get $20 million approved. "I want to make sure that we support the House's funding, which is the right direction," he said.
He said successfully cleaning up the site will raise property values in West Chicago, which will have a direct impact on schools.
Roskam and Kirk also agree funding should be restored to the Title X program so West Chicago can apply for future reimbursements.
"The thinking is that we would continue to work on this," Roskam said, "to continue to clean it up until its completion."
While the roughly 60-acre property is vacant, it used to house a factory that produced radioactive rare earth elements such as thorium for federal atomic energy and defense programs, dating to World War II.
The process created a sandlike material that the factory made available to residents for landscaping and building projects. In addition, a storm sewer from the factory site carried thorium to nearby Kress Creek and the West Branch of the DuPage River.
Then it was determined that thorium causes an increase in cancer.
Kerr-McGee, which bought the factory in 1967, started a massive cleanup to remove thorium from the waterways, hundreds of individual residential properties, Reed-Keppler Park and a wastewater treatment plant.
But after officials spent decades and roughly $1.2 billion cleaning area sites polluted with radioactive thorium waste, the environmental response trust overseeing the work doesn't have enough money to finish the cleanup of the factory property. Two areas within the fenced site remain contaminated.
"All we're doing is maintaining this property," West Chicago Mayor Ruben Pineda said. "We're not getting any more done."
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 property 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.
Pineda said city officials are hoping for the site to someday become a park.
"I want to make sure for my citizens that we can get this project completed," Pineda said.
"Put it behind us."