Michael Reese site

A view across the Canadian National and Metra tracks toward the Michael Reese site looking to the northwest from 31st Street on Feb. 18.

Representatives of the 4th Ward, city officials, and contractors led a virtual meeting on June 1 to discuss the remediation of the former Carnotite Reduction Company site located at 434 E. 26th St. The three-acre plot of land inside the northern part of the former Michael Reese Hospital site is covered in grass, pavement and buried radioactive waste. The site has been contaminated with uranium, radium, and carnotite for over a century, but is finally undergoing remediation with redevelopment imminent

The excavation of radiologically contaminated soil at the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA)–designated superfund site will cost approximately $31,000,000. The city will draw funding for the project from general obligation bonds and funds from the Bronzeville TIF. On-site remediation is set to start July 2021, with earthwork projected for August 2021. 

From 1916 to 1921, the Carnotite Reduction Company and its president, University of Chicago chemistry professor Herbert N. McCoy, brought in tons of radioactive ore by railroad from mines it owned and operated in Utah. Its refining operations separated radium — in-demand due to new cancer treatments — from carnotite-rich sandstone in Chicago using a chemical process, and it is believed that the hazardous tailings were dumped into nearby sewers, ditches, wells, or sand on the site. 

The city of Chicago has owned the land since 2009 when it was preparing for a failed Olympic bid. In 2017, the city chose a team of real estate firms to redevelop the land through a consortium dubbed the Global Research Innovation & Tourism district (GRIT). 

Zoning plans for the $3.8 billion development passed through City Council earlier this year. The first phase includes a medical research center, the Bronzeville Welcoming Center, and 300 units of senior housing, with a plan to create 6.7 million square feet of retail, residential and mixed-use development in a future second phase. 

Surveys conducted in 1979, 2009, and 2011 by the USEPA and the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) Division of Radiological Health concluded that the contamination did not pose an immediate health threat, but removal of the contaminated soil presents the need to establish institutional controls to monitor radiation.  

Last week’s virtual meeting was held to discuss the remediation plan in a public format as well as allow for public comment, community concerns, and responses. (Ald. Sophia King was not present at the meeting due to a scheduling conflict, but members of her staff were.)

Kimberly Worthington, Deputy Commissioner of Environmental Health and Safety Management at the city’s Assets, Information, and Services (AIS) Department, detailed the scope of the work. Contaminated soil from six to 14 feet below surface area will be excavated and transported in sealed bags via truck and rail car to a radiological waste landfill in Texas. The excavated area will then be filled with stone and/or soil and remain fenced off until redevelopment occurs. 

Kris Schnoes, an environmental scientist at Tetra Tech Inc, the contractor chosen as the remediation oversight consultant, detailed the air monitoring plan. Instruments to monitor radiological dust will be installed along the perimeter of the site and within the site to monitor the air for the workers. If dust is observed, work will cease.Water misting will be the primary control to mitigate dust, and a dewatering system will be used to capture and properly dispose of contaminated water runoff. Eight foot high fences with windscreens will surround the site as well. 

Schnoes says, "You can call 311 if you see dust or something and want an inspector to come out." The Carnotite Co. Chicago website will have live updates on air quality and information for local residents.

There are no plans for active cover placed on the excavation, “but as excavation progresses, we believe the excavation hole is going to get smaller and smaller because the contractor is going to be backfilling,” said Ram Ramasamy with AIS. “What the contractor was telling me is essentially the dust issue from wind can arise only from about zero to about three feet. Anything deeper, it's going to be hard for the wind to kick up the dust.”

Mary Decker, an elderly resident of Prairie Shores Apartments on 28th Street and South King Drive was concerned about the dust. She said that her building, one of five towers totaling 1,675 units, have single-paned windows that have not been updated since they were installed in the 1960s.

She asked if there have been any discussions around constructing a circus tent to completely seal in the dust. Schnoes answered that those structures are typically only used when the soil contains volatile contaminants, and that as long as the dust is controlled, these extreme measures aren’t necessary. 

In 2012, the USEPA performed radon monitoring in the basements of Prairie Shores. The monitors found radon concentrations below the USEPA action level of 4 pCi/L. 

The Prairie Shores Apartments were bought by developers Golub & Co and Farpoint Development in 2019, who are part of the GRIT team developing the former Michael Reese site. 

The former city agency responsible for conducting oversight of the Carnotite Co. site and interfacing with state and federal bodies, the Department of Environment, was dissolved on January 1, 2012 by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Members of its staff were reassigned to several different departments. At the time, the USEPA expressed concern over how the move would affect future interactions between USEPA and the City, as well as any City oversight of radiation monitoring at the site.

A report from the Better Government Association in 2019 revealed that environmental inspections and enforcement actions declined since the elimination of the department along with a dedicated hotline for resident complaints about pollution. Instead, residents are told to direct environmental concerns to 311, which was suggested at last week’s meeting. 

The Department of Assets, Information, and Services will continue to update their website with an air monitoring fact sheet, information on upcoming community meetings, and an FAQ section to community concerns and questions. Please email any comments to Department of Assets, Information and Services: AIS_EHS_Notifications@cityofchicago.org and Alderman King’s Office: ward04@cityofchicago.org

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