Last shipment of contaminated soil leaves West Chicago
After more than 30 years and $1.2 billion worth of cleanup work, the final rail cars filled with contaminated materials from the former Kerr-McGee factory site in West Chicago have been shipped out of town.
Mayor Ruben Pineda said the occasion is cause for celebration. On Tuesday, he gathered with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, Weston Solutions, DuPage County and other organizations that have helped with removing thousands of pounds of thorium waste produced by the factory. They watched the rail cars head to Utah, where the materials will be buried in the desert.
"It was a long fight for our community," Pineda said. "Thank God for all the entities that backed us up, that made sure they didn't turn West Chicago into a ghost town."
Thorium was produced on the site for decades, long before it was determined to cause an increase in cancer. It was used in the gaslight mantle production process by Lindsay Light and Chemical Co., which opened on the site in 1931, and in the early development of the atomic bomb.
Kerr-McGee took over the factory in 1967 and operated in West Chicago until 1973. The factory made a sandlike material containing thorium that was spread throughout the city when it was used for landscaping and building projects on hundreds of residential properties, Reed-Keppler Park and a wastewater treatment plant. Thorium waste also ended up in nearby Kress Creek and the West Branch of the DuPage River through a storm sewer.
Kerr-McGee and its spinoff, Tronox Inc., paid for most of the cleanup until Tronox filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009. The Department of Energy earmarked federal funding to the cleanup efforts through the Title X program, which reimburses communities that participated in the atomic energy program. But an environmental response trust that has been overseeing the work to get Title X money hasn't received any funding since 2008.
Although the soil is gone, city officials said they are waiting for the federal government to provide about $32 million to resolve issues with the contaminated groundwater at the site.
"We still have a lot of work to do out there," Pineda said. "If we were to get (the $32 million), we could finish the project relatively quickly and (the factory site) would turn into a beautiful park."
Pineda said the government has plans to provide a portion of the $32 million this year, but he isn't sure if the money will come through.
DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin said he also hopes the cleanup stays on course.
"While we still have a long way to go to finish the river restoration and implement a final groundwater remedy, this is the end of a very long chapter in the cleanup work at West Chicago," he said during a board meeting Tuesday.
• Daily Herald staff writer Robert Sanchez contributed to this report.