Environmental activists are pushing to stay involved during the remediation and redevelopment of polluted sites on Chicago’s Southwest Side.
Although members of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) called it a victory to have the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) commit to cleanup efforts in the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods, the group continues to campaign for community engagement in the area’s revitalization.
The grassroots organization provided project updates and discussed environmentally-friendly initiatives and redevelopment ideas at a public meeting Wednesday.
“We’ve had several really great successes in the last couple years, Fisk closed down, H. Kramer was forced to clean up their pollution, these kind of things don’t happen without community pressure,” said Jerry Mead-Lucero, organizer for PERRO. “Change requires community pressure, and that’s why it’s so important we keep informing the residents and keep the community involved so we can make good things happen.”
Stephanie Dunn, a member of PERRO, said the organization would soon be launching a campaign to get the city of Chicago to seize the vacant property at the former Loewenthal Metals site at 947 West Cullerton St. The site is home to a shuttered lead smelting factory that last operated in the 1940s. Members of PERRO say property taxes have not been paid on the site since 2001.
“The exciting part of this property is that we’re trying to get the alderman and the city to seize the property. The owner has conveniently abandoned it for us. We’re trying to get it turned over to the community,” Dunn said. “We’re going to start the process of engaging residents and getting them to start thinking about what they want to see on that site.”
Attendees of the meeting offered up suggestions for the vacant Loewenthal site, such as an extension of the area’s existing community garden, a park or a playground.
Tuesday, the EPA was granted a court order to begin testing for lead levels in the soil on the Loewenthal property. According to members of PERRO, remediation could begin as early as June 24.
Located near John A. Walsh Elementary School and a community garden, lead levels in the ground at the Loewenthal Metals site were found to be as high as 26,000 ppm in December. Anything higher than 400 ppm could be considered dangerous.
But Meade-Lucero said its critical PERRO is provided the opportunity to review the EPA’s community safety plan before remediation begins.
“We have a lot of questions, are they going to close the street down? Are they going to close the sidewalk down,” asked Mead-Lucero.
He said toxic soil could be tracked from truck wheels or tossed into the air during the cleanup process.
Meanwhile, PERRO is also pushing for community feedback regarding proposed public space at the shuttered Fisk Generating Station at 1111 West Cermak Rd.
“We’re kind of at a crossroads,” Mead-Lucero said.
Despite PERRO’s call for more than 15 acres of the now vacant property to be designated for public use, the property’s owner, Midwest Generation, has agreed to donate 3.7 acres.
PERRO has proposed land usage such as a river walk and a public park for the vacant waterfront property.
“What we’ve talked about is having one more big push for public outreach to get residents’ feedback to see what they think,” he said.
The EPA tested for dust and radiation pollution around the now vacant Fisk site earlier this year. Levels were found to be at expected normal concentrations for a Chicago residential neighborhood.
But Mead-Lucero said the EPA tests only determined that site contamination is not affecting the surrounding community. For future use of the property, he said, contaminated areas on the land would have to be addressed.
“Most important and beyond green space is, what is the remediation plan,” Mead-Lucero asked, adding that the property could be sold any day to an undisclosed land developer who would be responsible for the remaining cleanup effort. “Midwest Gen doesn’t want to pay for it, so whoever buys the property will be on the hook for whatever’s left there.”
“There’s no doubt there are areas on the Fisk site that need to be cleaned up,” he said.
Mead-Lucero added that, before the vacant property at either the Fisk or Loewenthal sites can be turned over to the community, the city has to agree to take over the land.
“We’re a long way away from doing this,” he said.
Members of PERRO also discussed EPA testing of lead levels in the soil at the copper-smelting foundry, H. Kramer and Company, at 1345 West 21st St.
According to Megha Patel, H. Kramer is one of the worst point sources for lead emissions in the country.
“Preliminary results of testing indicate lead levels are very high,” she said, adding that the EPA has tested soil around the factory and nearby Harrison Park. “But we should be getting official lab results by the end of this month.”
Patel said PERRO would join forces with the EPA to host a community meeting following the release of official lead contamination results.
H. Kramer settled with the EPA in January for allegedly violating the Clean Air Act. The company was fined a $35,000 penalty, forced to install $3 million in pollution controls for the foundry and pay $40,000 to retrofit diesel school buses in the area. According to PERRO members, the company has not yet modified the buses.
For the time being, Sallie Gordon, 67, a 32-year resident of Pilsen who five years ago launched a community garden near the Loewenthal site, has cut the number of garden beds in half and retreated from the edge of the vacant property.
She reduced her community garden from nearly 30 beds to 11 this spring, hoping to avoid ground contamination.
“I’m so grateful for the EPA,” she said, noting she’s on a first name basis with the project manager. “But I decided it’s just safer not to garden in that area anymore.”
Gordon added that the community garden hasn’t lost any participants as a result of the potential lead contamination, but says she wants to see quick and effective remediation of the site.
“Nobody wants to live near this,” she said. “Vacant properties are a draw for kids, and it’s just so dangerous. They could be getting brain damage.”
Photos of contaminated sites courtesy of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO).