50 years after Kerr-McGee closed, final cleanup will let tainted West Chicago land become a park
In a West Chicago neighborhood, an empty field remains blocked off by barbed-wired fencing -- seven years after the last rail car carrying thorium-tainted soil was shipped from the former factory site to a dump in the Utah desert.
The Kerr-McGee factory closed in 1973. Fifty years later, West Chicago is still dealing with the scars of industrial pollution: Shallow groundwater beneath the site contains residual contaminants -- in particular, uranium.
The contamination will be addressed using the $36 million left in a trust set up in 2011. The project is seen as the final chapter of a massive cleanup effort to remove radioactive waste from hundreds of homes, waterways, school grounds and Reed-Keppler Park. The total cost is expected to reach $1.3 billion.
With the end in sight, the city plans to develop the factory land into a park that could encompass soccer fields, pickleball and basketball courts, a community pavilion and a sledding hill. City council members on Monday will begin their review of a preliminary master plan for the 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.
Kelly Horn started working on the cleanup right out of college in 1995. Horn is now a branch chief in the Illinois Emergency Management Agency Division of Nuclear Safety. He helps oversee the long, arduous process to decommission the 43-acre factory site and turn it over to the city for use as a park.
"It's going to strip away that stigma that has kind of floated over the City of West Chicago for years," Horn said.
A lengthy battle
The factory, originally operated by Lindsay Light and Chemical Co., began producing thorium and rare earth compounds in 1932. The company made gaslight mantles, but the U.S. government also purchased the elements for the early development of the atomic bomb.
Radioactive mill tailings, a sandlike byproduct, were stored in large piles at the factory and made available as free filler material from the 1930s through the 1950s.
"The mill tailings were used throughout West Chicago for landscaping projects and to fill low-lying areas before the material was determined to be hazardous," a 2011 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report stated.
Over the years, stormwater runoff discharged into nearby Kress Creek, which empties into the West Branch of the DuPage River.
Seven miles of creek and river sediment, banks and floodplain soils laced with radioactive thorium residue landed on the EPA's list of Superfund sites, in a program Congress established in 1980 to manage the cleanup of the nation's worst hazardous waste sites. Four contaminated sites in the area made the list; three were in West Chicago, while the river site stretched to the McDowell Dam near Naperville.
Kerr-McGee, which took over the factory in 1967, later sought to bury waste on site. After years of legal haggling, Kerr-McGee agreed to remove and ship the waste by rail to a disposal facility in Utah. More than 1.2 million tons of contaminated material was hauled away from the site from 1998 to 2011.
West Chicagoans had formed the Thorium Action Group, a local watchdog that lobbied hard for shipping the waste out of state. Prolonged exposure to thorium has been linked to cancer.
From 1980, when residents began pushing for a thorium cleanup, to 2007, white residents left the factory neighborhood in droves, while the number of Latinos almost doubled, a Daily Herald analysis of U.S. Census data showed.
"My real concern is what happened in the aftermath of this, with a mass white flight, a mass entrance of Latinos taking advantage of houses that were cheap and affordable, not knowing about this legacy," said Cristóbal Cavazos, the founder of Immigrant Solidarity DuPage, an advocacy group based in Wheaton.
Cavazos wants the park development to include a memorial or some other reminder of what happened at the Kerr-McGee property. Activists also have called for an investigation into any possible lingering health impacts.
"With this park, I think this is a good jumping-off point to have a conversation, an honest conversation, about what happened at Kerr-McGee," Cavazos said.
Finishing the job
There is no longer any soil contamination at the factory site, Horn said, but there is residual groundwater contamination.
"Over the next phase of remediation, we're going to look at remedying that issue, strip out as much uranium from the groundwater as possible and restore the natural flow of groundwater to that area so Mother Nature can do its work," Horn said.
As part of the project, crews will remove sheet piling installed in the 1990s. The structures essentially act as a dam, impeding the natural flow of groundwater. Contaminants are not being naturally diluted in the way that they should, Horn said.
"Because we had to dig so deep into the earth because contamination in the soil was so deep, we couldn't do it safely without putting sheet piling in," Horn said.
There's no connectivity between the contaminated groundwater and the aquifers that provide the city's drinking water, Horn said.
"Unless somebody is chronically drinking the shallow aquifer groundwater -- which nobody is -- there is no public health and safety issue," Horn said. "What we really have is an environmental nuisance, an environmental contaminant issue, and that's what we want to kind of clean up with the remaining funds to restore the groundwater and the environment in this area to the best extent practical."
Weston Solutions, an environmental engineering firm, will complete the cleanup under Illinois Emergency Management Agency supervision. An environmental analysis concluded that the remediation plan can be done safely, Horn said.
The city has held forums to gather feedback for the park's design and name. As far as amenities, renderings show a challenge course, sensory gardens, pockets of native prairie and an asphalt trail in addition to space for soccer and pickleball. Mayor Ruben Pineda aims to give the Weyrauch Street property new life with a sledding hill and special needs playground.
"I am very proud of the fact that we're going to be doing something there," Pineda said.
But before that vision becomes reality, the final cleanup project will likely take three to five years to complete.
"I just can't wait for the day that we turn the key over to the City of West Chicago and they can start building a park," Horn said. "And the property values in the area can go up, and the quality of life in the area can go up, and they don't have to deal with us anymore."
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. The Downers Grove lawmaker sought the grant as one of his "community project funding" requests, or earmarks.
West Chicago will have one year to use the funding once it has been awarded.
The city will engage the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, Weston and other project partners to discuss using the $2 million for "current work needing to be done on site and in turn reallocating the money that is already secured by the Environmental Response Trust for those activities for future park improvements when the site is available for construction to begin," Guttman said.
The city council hired a landscape architecture firm to help design the park based on resident input. The public affairs committee is expected to review the firm's recommendations Monday night.
A history of contamination1932: Lindsay Light and Chemical Co. in West Chicago starts making gas lamps, producing radioactive thorium in the process.
1967: Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp. buys Lindsay Light, continues operation.
1973: Plant is closed.
1984-85: Kerr-McGee, in cooperation with the city of West Chicago, conducts a voluntary cleanup of about 117 properties.
April 1989: Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommends permanently burying radioactive waste at the Kerr-McGee plant.
January 1990: The resident-led Thorium Action Group pushes for shipping the waste out of state.
March 1991: A state appellate court rules Kerr-McGee needs the Environmental Protection Agency's permission to bury 587,000 tons of the waste on site. The EPA was against the move. Company eventually agrees to send the waste by train to a dumping ground near Clive, Utah.
Summer 2005: The EPA begins work on a cleanup of Kress Creek and the West Branch of the DuPage River.
2009: Tronox, a spinoff of Kerr-McGee, files for bankruptcy.
2010: Department of Justice announces 22 states, the Navajo Nation and local governments in Chicago and West Chicago have entered into a consent decree and settlement agreement with Tronox Inc. to fund the cleanup of contaminated sites.
2011: The West Chicago Environmental Response Trust agreement is signed.
2015: The last rail car full of thorium waste rolls out.
2016: Trust receives roughly $17.6 million in federal funds. Lawmakers from Illinois had called for funding to be restored to the Department of Energy's Title X program, which reimburses communities for the cleanup of sites used to produce thorium and uranium for the federal government.
To the present: Investigation work continued through 2022, leading to a recommendation to remediate the groundwater. Crews are scheduled to put up temporary buildings and other infrastructure this year, with the hope of starting the treatment process in early 2024.
Source: Daily Herald archives, environmental analysis prepared for IEMA