News Feature | January 6, 2017

In Chicago, Cleanup Of Lead-Polluted Yards Finally Begins

Dominique 'Peak' Johnson

By Peak Johnson

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In Chicago, work has finally started to clean up yards that have been contaminated for years by toxic lead emissions from a factory in the Pilsen neighborhood, well after activists tested soil and located high levels of the metal.

The issue of toxic lead in the Pilsen area of Chicago is nothing new. A few years ago, the Department of Justice obtained a court order that allowed the U.S. EPA to collect soil samples from a vacant lot near Walsh Elementary School in Pilsen. With increased national attention around lead issues with water infrastructure, some residents and officials may fear that this is another source for drinking water contamination.

The Chicago Tribune reported then that “even after investigators raised concern about children inhaling or ingesting contaminated soil, the lot had not been cleaned up or fenced off.”

Now, under instruction from the EPA, owners of the H. Kramer and Co. smelting operation are paying to remove the top few inches of soil from at least 54 yards in the low-income neighborhood.

The EPA sent workers out in late December to clean up four of the yards, “in part to persuade skeptical property owners to participate but also to signal the federal agency is serious about completing the work.”

It was in 2005 when the EPA started coming down hard on smelter after the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, a neighborhood group, had tested soil with help from scientists and discovered lead levels that were higher than normal for the Chicago area.

The Tribune reported that more than 1,500 people live in the targeted portion of Pilsen. Earlier this year Kramer “picked up more than half the cost to clean up an alley and railroad spur between the smelter and Benito Juarez Community Academy on Cermak Road.”

The city and BNSF Railway were able to cover the remaining costs by removing tracks and paving over the area.

"The EPA and Kramer have been way too slow getting the soil cleanup started," Maria Chavez, a longtime neighborhood activist, told the Tribune. "Kramer should be more concerned about the harmful effects of lead poisoning in the community than their financial share of cleaning up the soil contamination in residential areas."

Image credit: "Lot, December 2011" Michael Cory © 2011 used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/