Park District poised to deal on Superfund site

The Chicago Park District could clear the way today for the cleanup of a Superfund site in Little Village that the city intends to turn into a park.

The district board will consider an agreement would prevent the federal Environmental Protection Agency from suing the city if the EPA were to decide the land required further cleanup.

The agreement is a part of the city's preparations to purchase the 24 acres of land located at 28th street and South Sacramento in Little Village.

Lorena Lopez is the community organizer for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, a community group that's trying to ensure the future park will be safe for residents.

"We support the park," Lopez says. "There's a need for positive redevelopment like open space in the community. But when we have a park, we want our children to be able to play there and be healthy."

The area became a Superfund site in 1996, when the EPA declared the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs. PAHs are listed as a likely, but not proven, carcinogen by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The chemicals came from an asphalt company, Celotex, which operated at the site for 71 years. The land is currently owned by Sacramento Corp, a trucking company.

Cleanup efforts began last week to cover the contaminated soil with a gravel cap, which the EPA says will make the site safe for residential and recreational use.

The efforts also include filling in the sides of the park with soil and gravel to cut down on the steep grade from the gravel cap.

Jena Slodoba is the remedial project manager with the EPA for the Celotex site. She says the cleanup efforts will make the land safe for park use.

"We do a risk assessment and that's how we determine how the land can be used," Slodoba says. "PAH's prefer to stick to the soil and don't tend to evaporate. The chemicals are safer where they are right now, six to eight feet under the soil. There are greater risks posed with digging the soil up and transporting it."

However, Little Village residents still doubt the cleanup efforts, saying that even after it's finished, the site will not be safe enough for a park. Lopez says the legal agreement is just an effort by the city to restrict its liability if the site does turn out to be dangerous to residents.

Slodoba says the agreement is routine, but also added that the EPA does not usually enter into specific legal agreements with municipalities and it generally relies on current brownfield laws to restrict liability surrounding Superfund sites.

Marta Castillion, 65, who's lived across the street from the Celotex site for 10 years, worries about the health of her two grandchildren who often visit her. She feels the site may be responsible for her grandson getting sick earlier this year.

"His mother took him to the doctor and the doctor found chemicals in his bloodstream," she says. "She came to me and said, 'Mama, this must be from visiting you, from this pollution here.'"

Lopez and Castillion want the soil to be dug up and a clay and film layer laid down to prevent the chemicals from continuing to drain into the surrounding soil. The two also agree that if the proposed park were in a wealthier neighborhood, the cleanup efforts would be decidedly different.

"It's environmental racism," Lopez says, "It wouldn't happen in Lincoln Park, but because this is a primarily immigrant neighborhood, they can get away with this."

Slodoba says the EPA has one standard for determining clean up level - the risk that people who live or work around a site could develop cancer - and that standard does not vary by who lives in the neighborhood or how much the cleanup would cost.

Alderman George Cardenas is confident the project will be safe.

"I think we have to refer to the experts on this." Cardenas says, "Other brownfields have been remediated successfully, and this will be one of them."

For now, Lopez says her group is concentrating on getting community input on what the park should be like.

The Park District's Committee on Administration will meet at 10:30 a.m. today on the eighth floor of 541 N. Fairbanks Court to review the motion. The full Board of Commissioners will take up the matter at 4 p.m. today at the same place.