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By Michael Hawthorne, Chicago Tribune reporter
Federal and state officials have known for more than six years about hazardous levels of brain-damaging lead in a vacant lot near Walsh Elementary School in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.
Yet even after field investigators raised alarms about children possibly inhaling or ingesting contaminated soil, the half-acre lot hasn’t been fenced off or cleaned up. Nor have government officials posted signs warning residents in the low-income, largely Latino neighborhood that the lot is tainted with toxic lead dust.
The only evidence of the site’s industrial past is buried in files at the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. During the 1940s, documents show, the weed- and gravel-strewn lot was occupied by Loewenthal Metals, one of dozens of smelters around the city that emitted toxic pollution into the air as the factories melted down batteries and other lead-containing products to extract valuable metals.
Loewenthal Metals, like most other smelters in Chicago and hundreds of similar operations across the nation, shut down decades ago. But while the old smelters were forgotten over time, the health hazards they left behind often remain.
In 2006, testing by the Illinois EPA found the former Loewenthal Metals site contaminated with up to 5,900 parts per million of lead — more than 14 times the federal safety limit for areas where children play. State investigators also found arsenic in the soil at levels more than 23 times higher than the federal cleanup goal for residential areas.
“Since this site is in a residential area, the possibility of exposure is high,” the investigators concluded, noting that they had seen children walking through the lot on the way to and from school.
USA Today, in an investigative series that ran this year, first reported about the government’s failure to clean up the Pilsen site, noting that the federal EPA had requested the state investigation as part of a nationwide search for information about abandoned smelters. Neither agency invoked its legal authority to order a cleanup or to fence off the Pilsen site from passers-by.
“What are they waiting for? Enough passing the buck around,” Teresa Medina, a community activist whose two grandchildren attend Walsh Elementary, told the Tribune recently. “Why have they neglected this problem for so long?”
Studies show that even tiny amounts of lead ingested or inhaled can damage the brains of young children and trigger learning disabilities, aggression and criminal behavior later in life. Most scientists say there is no safe level of exposure.
Efforts to prevent lead poisoning are focused mainly on protecting children from exposure to lead paint in homes and buildings. The Pilsen site highlights how lead pollution from old factories, combined with decades of exhaust from vehicles that were fueled by leaded gasoline until the mid-1980s, can build up in the top few inches of soil and linger for years.
Nearly a year has passed since the state took another look at its files and urged federal officials to conduct an emergency cleanup of the lot at 947 W. Cullerton St. In a December 2011 letter to the U.S. EPA requesting a “time-critical removal action,” state officials noted that “the property remains in an area that is accessible to the public and elevated levels of lead and arsenic were previously detected.”
It took until last week for the Department of Justice to obtain a court order clearing the way for the U.S. EPA to collect soil samples from the lot and determine whether further action will be required. It remains unclear when a cleanup would begin if federal investigators confirm the health hazards.
In response to questions from the Tribune, officials at the EPA’s regional office in Chicago said it took longer than expected to address the problem because the owner of the lot refused to cooperate.
“In most cases, U.S. EPA first seeks to obtain voluntary access from owners before exercising the agency’s statutory authorities,” the agency said in a statement.
The lot’s owner, who is listed in Cook County property records with an address in the Gold Coast neighborhood, could not be reached for comment.
Federal and state officials pointed fingers at each other for failing to take action years ago when they discovered the contaminated lot. Their slow reactions to their own investigations outrages community activists in Pilsen, a neighborhood where brick three-flats that survived the Chicago Fire of 1871 are crammed next to factories.
Lead pollution is a well-known problem in Pilsen. In 2005, a year before state inspectors tested the Loewenthal Metals site, a group called the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization collected soil samples from several yards and parks in the neighborhood and found lead levels that far exceeded the federal cleanup standard for residential areas.
The group’s alarming discoveries prompted the federal and state EPAs to file legal complaints against H. Kramer and Co., a smelter that has been recycling scrap metal since the 1920s and still operates a few blocks west of the former Loewenthal Metals site.
H. Kramer agreed to curb its air pollution and cleaned up lead-contaminated soil from its site and two nearby properties. But the smelter’s lead emissions continued to plague the surrounding area.
Last year, federal regulators designated Pilsen as one of only two Illinois communities where people breathe unhealthy levels of the toxic metal. Airborne lead pollution exceeded federal health standards during a fifth of the days monitored during 2010 at Perez Elementary School, 1241 W. 19th St., two blocks north of the H. Kramer smelter. The findings led to a new round of legal complaints against the company that have yet to be resolved.
Maria Chavez, another community activist, said federal and state officials involved in the H. Kramer case never revealed that they have known for years about another lead-contaminated site in the neighborhood.
“They should be ashamed of themselves for not sharing this with the community,” Chavez said. “We’re already struggling with so many different pollution sources and now we have another one to add to our list.”
Until the early 2000s, it appears nobody knew about the history of the former Loewenthal Metals site, or about scores of other former lead smelters around the country.
The long-forgotten factories came to the attention of the U.S. EPA in 2001, after an independent researcher published a study that relied on historical records to identify potentially contaminated smelter sites. The findings led the EPA to ask its regional offices and inspectors at state agencies to conduct testing and take action if it appeared that any of the sites posed a risk to the public.
Some of the sites have since been cleaned up, according to a 2007 summary prepared by federal officials. Others don’t pose risks because they were paved over years ago or public access is restricted.
The former Loewenthal Metals site is one of several that fell through the cracks and only now are in line for possible cleanups.
Another site in the Chicago area is on the list. The U.S. EPA said it soon will be scouring lead-contaminated soil from the former Lake Calumet Smelter property on the city’s Far South Side, where state investigators in 2006 found lead levels as high as 768,000 parts per million in the soil.
Though the site is fenced off in a former industrial strip along the Bishop Ford Expressway, federal officials recently found evidence of foot traffic through several gaps. Homes are about a half-mile west of the site.
In Pilsen, neighborhood activists aren’t waiting for government officials to act. After a Tribune reporter told them about the former Loewenthal Metals site, they posted handmade signs around the vacant lot warning people for the first time that it is contaminated with hazardous levels of lead.
Said Chavez: “Since the EPA has failed to inform and protect us, we need to take immediate action to do so ourselves.”