Environmental cleanup nears completion in West Chicago

  • The former Kerr-McGee factory site along Weyrauch Street in West Chicago remains vacant.

      The former Kerr-McGee factory site along Weyrauch Street in West Chicago remains vacant. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 2/1/2023 8:37 AM

West Chicago leaders have said they look forward to the day when the city isn't associated with the word "thorium."

Only time will tell if that happens.


But seven years after the last rail cars carrying thorium-tainted soil from the former Kerr-McGee factory property left town, the end is in sight for an environmental cleanup that started decades ago.

In a story last week, our reporter Katlyn Smith described how the city is still dealing with industrial pollution caused by the Kerr-McGee factory, which closed in 1973. Shallow groundwater beneath the property contains residual contaminants, in particular uranium.

But that contamination will be addressed as part of a project that will take three to five years to finish.

It's the final chapter of a massive effort to clean sites polluted with radioactive thorium waste from the former factory. Since the cleanup began, thorium has been removed from area waterways, hundreds of residential properties, Reed-Keppler Park and a wastewater treatment plant.

When the work to clean the former factory site is complete, the city plans to transform the 43-acre property along Weyrauch Street into a park.

"We are going to take one of the City of West Chicago's most negative memories and make it a very positive experience for our residents now and in the future," City Administrator Michael Guttman said.

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That brighter future was made possible long ago because of the hard work of a group of activists.

In the 1980s, West Chicago residents refused to let Kerr-McGee stall in getting thorium out of the city. Prolonged exposure to thorium has been linked to cancer. The residents were intent on persuading the company to clean up the material, which came from the manufacture of gaslight mantles at the former factory.

Those residents eventually formed the Thorium Action Group, which grew into a well-organized citizen activist movement. TAG enlisted local, state and federal elected leaders to support its cause.

Public pressure resulted in Kerr-McGee starting the environmental cleanup, which has since cost roughly $1.2 billion. Kerr-McGee and its spinoff, Tronox Inc., paid for most of the cleanup until Tronox filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009.

At one point, there was a concern that the environmental response trust overseeing the work wouldn't have enough money to finish the cleanup of the factory property. But federal leaders in recent years have come through with the needed funding. Just last month, U.S. Rep. Sean Casten secured $2 million in federal funds for the city as part of the $1.7 trillion federal spending bill President Joe Biden signed into law.

Smith reported that there's no longer any soil contamination at the factory site -- just residual groundwater contamination. The process to remediate the groundwater is expected to begin in early 2024 after crews put up temporary buildings and other infrastructure this year.

So, despite obstacles and years of setbacks, the cleanup effort is in its final phase. And we owe a debt of gratitude to those who helped make it happen.

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