Top stories in Lake County -- 2019

  • Amid safety concerns and claims of cultural insensitivity, the Lake County Forest Preserves called off its annual Civil War Days event at Lakewood Forest Preserve in Wauconda.

    Amid safety concerns and claims of cultural insensitivity, the Lake County Forest Preserves called off its annual Civil War Days event at Lakewood Forest Preserve in Wauconda. Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserves

  • Lake Bluff's Sandy Hart is the first Democratic chairwoman of the Lake County Board.

    Lake Bluff's Sandy Hart is the first Democratic chairwoman of the Lake County Board. Courtesy of Lake County Board

 
 
Posted12/30/2019 6:00 AM

Change was in the air in Lake County in 2019, and so too were dangerous chemicals -- above a pair of manufacturing plants, trailing a tractor along a quiet stretch of highway and near high school campuses everywhere.

The year saw instances of remarkable heroism amid devastating tragedy, the demise of a project long considered part of the county's future, and a remembrance of the nation's past abolished over newfound controversy.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

And 2019 brought hope in the form of gambling for one struggling community, while town leaders everywhere else grappled with the impending legalization of marijuana.

Here's a look back at the top stories of 2019 in Lake County:

Route 53 extension flames out

The long-debated Route 53 extension into Lake County died in 2019, as the Illinois tollway pulled the plug on an environmental impact study that could have put the project in motion.
The long-debated Route 53 extension into Lake County died in 2019, as the Illinois tollway pulled the plug on an environmental impact study that could have put the project in motion. - Daily Herald File Photo, 2019

After decades of being touted as a crucial element to the future of transportation in Lake County, Illinois tollway leaders abruptly pulled the plug on a costly environmental impact study of a proposed extension of Route 53 from Lake-Cook Road to Route 120.

The move effectively put an end to the much-debated project, seen by some as an environmental boondoggle and others as a key to unlocking the economic potential of central Lake County,

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It seems the only question remaining is what the state should do with the 1,100 acres the Illinois Department of Transportation spent nearly $55 million acquiring over the past five decades for the extension's corridor.

Civil War Days dies in battle

A 27-year tradition came to an inglorious end when the Lake County Forest Preserves -- following a heated debate -- canceled its long-running and popular Civil Wars Days event traditionally held at Lakewood Forest Preserve near Wauconda.

While declining participation and attendance played a small part in the cancellation, the true culprits were complaints about cultural insensitivity surrounding the two-day event, followed by concerns about safety if the Civil War re-enactment went forward as planned in July.

But don't wave the white flag just yet, history buffs: forest preserve commissioners in August gave the agency's staff the OK to begin exploring options to bring back the event for 2020.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Heroes among the ruins

An explosion tore through the AB Specialty Silicones plant in Waukegan in May, killing four workers and rattling windows for miles around.
  An explosion tore through the AB Specialty Silicones plant in Waukegan in May, killing four workers and rattling windows for miles around. - John Starks | Staff Photographer, May 2019

Four workers were described as heroes after they were killed in May when a massive explosion tore through the AB Specialty Silicones plant in Waukegan.

The blast -- which could be heard and felt from miles around -- left the factory a tangled mass of twisted steel.

Officials said the four workers killed -- Daniel Nicklas, 24, of Beach Park; Jeff Cummings, 57, of Kenosha, Wisconsin; Byron H. Biehn, 53, of Brighton Township, Wisconsin; and Allen Stevens, 29, of Salem, Wisconsin, -- appeared to have been killed when they noticed something wrong at the factory and were helping their co-workers escape to safety before the blast.

In October, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration smacked AB Specialty Silicones with a $1.6 million fine over alleged safety violations that may have played a role in the deadly explosion.

Something in the air?

Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee came under fire in 2019 for emissions of the cancer-causing chemical ethylene oxide.
  Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee came under fire in 2019 for emissions of the cancer-causing chemical ethylene oxide. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer, March 2019

Explosive allegations about toxic air pollution landed two other Lake County manufacturing plants -- Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee and Medline Industries in Waukegan -- in the news this year.

Both facilities were accused of emitting the cancer-causing chemical ethylene oxide into the air, threatening the health of surrounding residents. The claims led to lawsuits, months of testing and state legislation aimed at reducing such emissions. In December, a University of Illinois at Chicago report found elevated levels of ethylene oxide among Waukegan residents living near the Medline plant.

Officials at both companies, in the meantime, said they were taking steps to reduce emissions on their own, while also insisting that they were not a health threat to their neighbors.

Vaping in the crosshairs

Lake County State's Attorney Michael G. Nerheim holds up examples of Juul products he claims are preying on the youth during a news conference in August announcing a lawsuit against the e-cigarette manufacturer.
Lake County State's Attorney Michael G. Nerheim holds up examples of Juul products he claims are preying on the youth during a news conference in August announcing a lawsuit against the e-cigarette manufacturer. - Daily Herald File Photo, Aug. 2019

Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim targeted what he and others saw as another public health threat this year -- vaping.

In August, Nerheim announced he was partnering with three Chicago law firms in a first-of-its-kind lawsuit claiming that e-cigarette manufacturer Juul Labs hooked teens on nicotine by glamorizing vaping on social media and elsewhere.

"Like dope dealers on a street corner, Juul intentionally created addicted teen customers to continuously come back looking for another fix," Nerheim said at the time.

San Francisco-based Juul rejected the allegations, saying it markets its products as an alternative to tobacco for adults.

One man's vice ...

A casino could soon be built on land in Waukegan's Fountain Square development along routes 120 and 43.
  A casino could soon be built on land in Waukegan's Fountain Square development along routes 120 and 43. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer, June 2019

While the county's top prosecutor was targeting one vice, officials in other Lake County communities were embracing what some see as equally dangerous activities -- gambling and recreational marijuana use.

Waukegan leaders celebrated in June when Gov. JB Pritzker signed an enormous gambling expansion bill that granted the city a long-awaited casino. In October, the city council forwarded to state regulators three casino operators for consideration -- Full House Resorts, North Point Casino and Rivers Casino Waukegan. The likely site of the casino would be the city's Fountain Square property at Lakehurst Road and Northpoint Boulevard.

Elsewhere, city councils and village boards prepared for the legalization of recreational marijuana in Illinois beginning New Year's Day. Under the state legislation allowing it, municipalities can't outlaw pot's use, but can ban or place restrictions on businesses that sell it.

It's been a mixed bag in Lake County, with towns including Libertyville, Gurnee and Lake Zurich outlawing pot shops and others, including Mundelein, Buffalo Grove and Wauconda, permitting those businesses.

Red turns blue

A casino could soon be built on land in Waukegan's Fountain Square development along routes 120 and 43.
  A casino could soon be built on land in Waukegan's Fountain Square development along routes 120 and 43. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer, June 2019

The year marked the dawn of a new era in Lake County politics, as a Democratic majority took control of the county board for the first time in the county's 179-year history.

After a stunning election night rout in November 2018, Democrats took a 12-9 board majority into 2019 and almost immediately began making sweeping changes. Among their moves: passing ethics reforms, making it easier to remove a board president, taking away board members' county credit cards, and passing measures forbidding commissioners from sexually harassing or bullying their peers, employees or constituents.

Trail of destruction

Thirty-seven people were hurt after two large containers of liquid anhydrous ammonia leaked while being hauled by a John Deere tractor on Green Bay Road near 29th Street in Beach Park.

Among them were three officers and 11 firefighters who responded to the scene to help others and clear the toxic mess.

The tractor's driver, a 59-year-old Wisconsin man who was among the injured, was headed to a farm field in Beach Park, apparently unaware of the chemical hazard trailing behind him.

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