Nearly a decade after neighbors first drew attention to lead pollution from a Pilsen smelting plant, the owners agreed Thursday to spend $3 million on new equipment to curb emissions of the brain-damaging metal.
In a legal settlement announced Thursday by federal and state officials, H. Kramer and Co. also agreed to limit its production of certain lead alloys until new pollution controls are installed at the smelter, which has been recycling scrap metal at 21st and Throop streets in Chicago since the 1920s and remains one of the biggest industrial sources of brain-damaging lead in the Chicago area.
The settlement, filed in U.S. District Court, marks the second time in less than a decade that complaints from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan forced Kramer to take steps to reduce the smelter's pollution.
Kramer installed new ductwork and other equipment in 2006 to resolve the earlier complaint. But a pollution monitor at nearby Perez Elementary School detected high levels of lead in the air throughout 2010, prompting officials to designate Pilsen as one of only two communities in Illinois where people breathe unhealthy amounts of the toxic metal.
Average lead levels at the school were at or above federal limits during three three-month periods that year, and on one day in December 2010 they spiked to more than 10 times the federal limit, according to monitoring data first reported by the Tribune.
No other monitor in the Chicago area has recorded similar problems in recent years. The only other Illinois community with chronically high lead pollution surrounds a steel mill in Granite City, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.
Lead pollution from 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. A growing number of 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.
"This settlement will protect Pilsen residents from lead emissions from the H. Kramer foundry and prevent future violations of the Clean Air Act," Susan Hedman, the EPA's regional administrator, said in a statement.
Todd Wiener, an attorney for Kramer, said the company has reduced its lead emissions to about 200 pounds a year, down from 1,450 pounds as recently as 2007.
"The company is pleased to resolve these complaints and hopes to become an industry leader in reducing its emissions," Wiener said.
The move to crack down on the smelter is related to a broader investigation in Pilsen by federal and state officials who are responding to "environmental justice" complaints that the predominantly Latino, low-income neighborhood is disproportionately affected by air pollution.
Recent data from the Perez monitor show that lead levels have dropped sharply since the EPA and Madigan filed the latest complaint in August 2011. Kramer already has repaired holes in the roof of one of its foundry buildings, installed new doors to prevent other leaks and began spreading dust suppressants on its gravel lots, according to settlement documents.
The new pollution controls are intended to keep emissions low.
"If that goal can be accomplished, then this will be a significant victory for the community and a message to other polluters in Chicago and elsewhere that they must follow the law," said Dorian Breuer, an activist with the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, a neighborhood group that pressured the EPA and Madigan to take action.
As with other EPA settlements, Kramer is allowed to deny responsibility for the lead problems. But in addition to spending money on new pollution controls at the smelter, the company will pay a $35,000 fine and contribute $40,000 to overhaul school buses in the neighborhood to reduce harmful diesel emissions.
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