Activists celebrate the closure of the Fisk coal plant in Chicago in 2012. (Photo by Marianne Morgan/ELPC)

EPA: Chicago coal plants left no toxic legacy, but cleanup remains complicated

CHICAGO — The Fisk coal-fired power plant whose stack towers over the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago has been closed for seven months.

But the plant is still very much on the minds of community activists who want to see the site cleaned up and turned into a park or other publicly beneficial use.

Residents who live near the Fisk plant and another coal plant closed last summer, Crawford in the adjacent Little Village neighborhood, have been worried about lasting contamination from the plants and demanding testing be done to search for any problems.

Testing results explained by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials at meetings in Pilsen and Little Village March 20 and 21, respectively, revealed there are no significant levels of radiation or particulate matter in the air around the now-closed plants.

There are, however, high lead levels in surrounding soils, which could be attributed to the coal plants along with other historical sources including smelters, lead paint and leaded gasoline.

Meanwhile there is a pressing environmental issue at both sites — related not to the coal plants but the manufactured gas plants that operated there from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s and left buried coal tar and other contaminants.

EPA outreach

The Pilsen and Little Village meetings are part of a community involvement process outlined in the federal Superfund law and required when the EPA is undertaking remediation.

As part of the process EPA officials are inviting Pilsen and Little Village residents to volunteer for individual or group interviews to help the agency learn more about the neighborhoods and residents’ concerns.

About 100 locals filled the gym of an elementary school near the Fisk plant March 20, where the EPA, Alderman Danny Solis’s office and the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) community group had set up tables below colorful murals and climbing walls.

During meetings of a task force convened to help shape the site’s future, PERRO members have demanded the site and surrounding areas be tested for contamination. At the Pilsen event, EPA officials explained how they tested the air around the closed Fisk plant with four stationary monitors and a mobile monitor carried around the perimeter on a baby stroller. They found radiation and particulate matter at standard background levels for urban areas, raising no concerns.

EPA officials did find high levels of lead in the soil in various Pilsen alleys. The agency is continuing to investigate lead contamination, including seeking permission to test in residents’ yards.

While the coal plant did emit lead, nearby smelters have been considered greater sources of soil contamination. The EPA is pursuing cleanup of the site of one smelter that closed decades ago and is thought to have caused much lead pollution, including right near Walsh Elementary, were the meeting was held.

Coal tar remains

While the century-old Fisk coal-fired power plant appears not to have left a legacy of contamination in the neighborhood, the manufactured gas plant that preceded the coal plant on the same site, and also operated in tandem with it for a half-century, has left toxic coal tar buried underground.

ComEd owns part of the site including the coal tar; ComEd also owned the coal plant before selling its fleet to Midwest Generation following Illinois deregulation in the late 1990s. But Peoples Gas and its parent company Integrys Energy Group are responsible for the cleanup of the approximately nine-acre former manufactured gas plant site, which also includes property used by document storage and trucking operations.

From the mid-19th through the mid-20th century, manufactured gas plants turned coal into gas used for cooking, heating and street lights in “every town over 10,000 people…throughout the U.S.,” as EPA remedial project manager Ross Del Rosario said during his presentation to Pilsen residents.

The coal tar waste that resulted was typically buried. A known carcinogen, coal tar has made its way up through the soil and been cited as a serious health risk in other Illinois locations.

The manufactured gas plant in Pilsen opened in 1862 and after several renovations to make different types of gas, it was dismantled by 1960. An EPA settlement with Peoples Gas mandated its cleanup along with 10 other Chicago manufactured gas plant sites.

Del Rosario said that 10,000 cubic yards of soil contaminated with coal tar has already been removed from the Pilsen site, in an action completed in 2009. But after the initial investigation EPA officials found more remediation was needed and another settlement with Peoples Gas was reached.

The investigation stemming from that settlement is ongoing. It will result in a Record of Decision followed by a public comment period, then the EPA will negotiate with Peoples Gas around another cleanup plan. The whole process will take about a year and a half, Del Rosario told the crowd.

Sediment in the Chicago River abutting the coal tar site will also be monitored to check for leaching contamination. The EPA’s website says that in 2000, sediment samples taken 2,000 feet downstream from the gas plant site showed “high levels of PAHs, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), oil and grease, and metals” at levels potentially harmful to organisms that live in the sediment.

From a plant to a park?

PERRO organizer Jerry Mead-Lucero said that in task force meetings, representatives of coal plant owner Midwest Generation have proposed turning their portion of the manufactured gas site into a public park after it is cleaned up.

Residents don’t like that plan, according to Mead-Lucero, since the parcel is next to a still-operating ComEd substation and is not easily visible or accessible from the street. PERRO members propose a park on Cermak Avenue at the opposite end of the coal plant site, as outlined in a colorful booklet PERRO produced with an architecture firm.

Now that concerns about lasting contamination from the coal plant have been largely laid to rest, Mead-Lucero said PERRO will continue to be vigilant and push whomever buys the Midwest Generation property to develop it in a way that offers public benefits and open space for residents.

“When they’ve identified a new owner we’ll have to put pressure on them to make sure they continue to work with the community,” Mead-Lucero said. “If they’re obstinate, it will be a whole new campaign.”

The task force including representatives of the mayor’s office, Midwest Generation, PERRO and other stakeholders has no binding power. “It’s all a good faith effort,” said Mead-Lucero.

“It’s up to the community to keep continually questioning,” added PERRO member Sarah Finkel. “I’m glad we’re seeing this turnaround, so many people from the EPA and the alderman’s office involved.”

“PERRO has really advanced this plan (for reusing the coal plant site), they’ve come up with these pie-in-the-sky ideas, which is great,” said EPA international affairs and history liaison Heriberto Leon.

He added that once options for the site’s future become more clear, EPA officials could assist community members in applying for grants under the agency’s Brownfields program or other opportunities.

“Our experience collaborating with them has been excellent,” he said.

3 thoughts on “EPA: Chicago coal plants left no toxic legacy, but cleanup remains complicated

  1. It is interesting that EPA can differentiate between PAHs from a manufactured gas plant and PAHs from a coal-fired plant. PAHs are found in all components of coal to varying concentrations. There is a definite push to cleanse use of coal of any possible toxicity. The coal lobby is doing a fantastic job in “cleaning” up coal with words.

  2. It would be interesting to see how they removed and disposed of the 10,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil. While it allows for the reclamation of that area to take place, it could potentially contaminate a much greater area. Nonetheless it’s good to see the attempt at reclaiming the area and making it safer for residents, plants, and animals!

  3. My concerns have not been for the coal plants, but for the forging and smelting plants that are still in operation, such as the Kramer factory that sits on the southeast corner of 21st & Loomis. I purchased a building just one block south at Cullerton and Loomis in 2001, and all three of my natural born children have had medical problems since residing in Pilsen. My son passed away in 2008 after a four year battle with cancer that was was testicular, but with a metastasis to his lungs and brain, he was 22 yrs. old, did not smoke, drink, or do drugs. He assisted me with the 123 yr. old building and renovations, which included everything inside and out. His oncologist and neurologist insisted this was the worst case of the disease they had witnessed in a young otherwise healthy, athlete of his age. When the tumor from is testicle and two-thirds of his scrotum was removed, and it was biopsy, the neurologist indicated that in slides, they found every type of cancer known to man. Todd fought a hard battle, having multiple brain, lung, neck, back, stomach surgeries along with chemo, radiation and two stem cell transplants, but with all that medical treatment could not keep him from passing away in February of 2008. His heart just could not take all of the surgeries and his lungs had filled up with fluid, causing him to be placed on life support for a week, before we needed to unplug him as he still was adamant he wanted to breath, and not allow the machines to do their job. He would flat line, which would not be pretty for the 100 or so friends and family who had come to the hospital for that 4:00 am call, that he was going to be taken off the life support.
    My daughters ages 23 yrs. and 11 yrs. have both developed a cough. Unexplained cough, just at random, comes and goes, my oldest being more severe. But the worst if now my grandson who is now almost 2-1/2 years old, born here in Pilsen, raised here for that time frame, and he has had constant high levels of lead that have come back from his doctors office? Unexplained? But, what we are concerned about is the soil, wind, dust, contamination from the continuance of this plant directly behind our building, down the alley, the water run off, from their plant, and the years of exposure from the chemical, especially the arsenic, which is the silent killer. I realize that their has been much more than what we have been told as far as environmental clean ups, like at the new firehouse on Racine and Blue Island, as well as the Police Station at the opposite corner. The the new park that just sprung up, next to the police station. Instead of removing the soil the city just placed new top soil over the contaminated soil. Kudos, so more children who are running and playing can stir up the melting pot. When is this going to end? I am sure with all the building and developing that has been going on to beautify Pilsen, the Alderman would be concerned about the land, that his children played on, or is it just the publicity that is the main factor? He claims that he was instrumental in getting the Fisk plant closed, when it was not the Fisk plant that was causing the severity of the issues at all, but in fact the other plants that say contribute to his political career and that of others in the city. That is what needs to be cleaned up, then perhaps we can do something about the crime, gangs and the environment once and for all……..