More than seven years after state and federal officials discovered a lead-contaminated lot near an elementary school in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, the tainted soil has been dug up, trucked to a landfill and replaced with bright green grass.
Gina McCarthy, the new administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, flew into town Thursday to celebrate what she called a "quick" response to health hazards at the site of a long-forgotten smelter in the low-income, predominantly Latino neighborhood.
But in response to questions about why it actually took years for the EPA to act, she said addressing the staggering number of polluted industrial sites across the nation remains a daunting task for an agency with limited staff and resources.
In this case, community activists pressured the EPA to take action in response to stories in the Tribune and USA Today about the former Loewenthal Metals property.
"I don't want to tell communities that they need to stand up and scream before EPA pays attention to them," McCarthy said. "I'm here to recognize that every community isn't where it needs to be in terms of protecting people from environmental risks."
Nobody knew about Loewenthal Metals and scores of other abandoned smelters until an independent researcher published a 2001 study that relied on historical records to identify potentially contaminated sites. In response, the EPA asked its regional offices and state environmental agencies to conduct testing and take action if the sites posed health risks.
Some sites have since been cleaned up. Others don't pose risks because they were paved over years ago or public access is restricted.
The Loewenthal Metals site at 947 W. Cullerton St. is one of several that fell through the cracks, even though Illinois EPA inspectors in 2006 found it 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 inspectors also reported seeing children walking through the lot on their way to and from Walsh Elementary School a block away.
The Pilsen site highlights how lead pollution — from old factories as well as decades of exhaust from vehicles fueled by leaded gasoline until the mid-1980s — can build up in the top few inches of soil and linger for years. 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.
USA Today drew attention to the Loewenthal Metals property in a 2012 series about abandoned smelters. After a November 2012 Tribune story about the contaminated lot, neighborhood groups posted bilingual warning signs and Ald. Danny Solis, 25th, ordered a fence erected around the site.
Another round of testing by the U.S. EPA confirmed the hazards identified earlier by state inspectors. Contractors ended up removing 4,800 tons of contaminated soil, EPA officials said, making the site safe enough for housing.
The freshly sodded lot is open again. But a new fence on the edge of the property marks another environmental problem for Pilsen.
During their testing this year, EPA inspectors found high lead levels in an abandoned railroad right of way between Cullerton and 18th Street that neighborhood groups had turned into a trail and community garden. The city is cleaning up its portion of the property and negotiating with BNSF Railway to address the rest of the contamination, EPA officials said.
"We continue to face a lot of challenges," said Jerry Mead-Lucero of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, a nonprofit group that collected soil from several yards and parks in the neighborhood and found lead levels that far exceeded the federal cleanup standard for residential areas.
Meanwhile, U.S. EPA last month began scouring lead-contaminated soil from another abandoned Chicago smelter. State investigators in 2006 found lead levels as high as 768,000 parts per million at the former Lake Calumet Smelter property on the Far South Side.
Though the site is fenced off in a former industrial strip along the Bishop Ford Expressway, federal officials found evidence of foot traffic through several gaps. Homes are about a half-mile west of the site.
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