Cleaning Up Industrial Waste in Calumet Heights IL

by Danielle Cooperstock for SUST 240

The United States Department of Justice announced on September 3, 2014 on their Office of Public Affairs that a $26 settlement was agreed upon by the federal Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency to fund the land clean up for Calumet Heights, a Chicago neighborhood on the Southeast Side. In three areas around the neighborhood, including Carrie Gosch Elementary School, the soil is contaminated with lead and arsenic which was caused by the waste produced during the industrial development of the area from the 1900s to 1985.

Calumet Heights is located on the East Side of Chicago, just northwest of the Calumet River which runs into Lake Michigan. Both Calumet Heights and the Calumet River have been heavily industrialized which has resulted in their high levels of pollution and unsafe conditions. (Photo: Re/max Northern Illinois)

Calumet Heights is located on the East Side of Chicago, just northwest of the Calumet River which runs into Lake Michigan. Both Calumet Heights and the Calumet River have been heavily industrialized which has resulted in their high levels of pollution and unsafe conditions. (Photo: Re/max Northern Illinois)

The settlement was reached between the Atlantic Richfield Company and E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co. because under the Superfund law, they are liable for the cleanup since they or their predecessors are or were the owners of the factories that caused the lead and arsenic contamination in the Calumet neighborhood. The cleanup will consist of removing as much as two feet of soil from the affected areas to replace it with uncontaminated soil. The contaminated soil will then be sent off to landfills that will contain the toxins.

What is even more shocking than the high levels of contamination in Calumet Heights is the lack of community awareness about the contaminated soil as well as the plan to clean it up. The Post-Tribune correspondent, Carrie Napoleon, talked to many members of the community in her article, “In path of pollution, residents react to $26 million cleanup pact” to get their reactions to the $26 million settlement only to find out that no-one in the neighborhood knew about it, but none were surprised. Calumet Heights has historically been a heavily industrialized neighborhood: the first factory in Calumet was built in the early 1900s and produced copper until it was bought out in 1920s by U.S. Smelting, then Refining and Mining, and then by USS Lead.

It is vital for the health of future to clean up our planet! (photo: Goutkiller.com)

It is vital for the health of future to clean up our planet! (photo: Goutkiller.com)

In 2012, USA Today released an article by Alison Young and Peter Eisler that presented the results from soil testing in over 400 areas in the United States in which there were potential lead smelters unknown to federal regulators (for they were in operation before the EPA was created). The experimenters collected soil samples within one mile of where the factories once operated from areas such as residential yards (with permission), public parks, schools, athletic fields, and public land. Their findings concluded that lead contamination in soil was generally highest in cities such as Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia because of their history with industrialization. The article also mentions that the population density of these cities added to the lead contamination because there were most likely more cars being driven around that were burning and polluting leaded gasoline.

In various neighborhoods in Chicago, there have been numerous cases of lead and/or arsenic contamination caused by the waste byproducts of factories. Just South of Calumet Heights is an area known to the U.S. EPA in Region 5 as the Lake Calumet Cluster site. This area is approximately eighty-seven acres and is heavily industrialized, both historically and currently. Both the U.S. EPA and the Illinois EPA have been instrumental in funding the cleanup of this site that began in 1979 to limit the affects of the toxins in the Alburn Incinerator, an unnamed parcel, U.S. Drum II, and the Paxton Area Lagoons. The cleanup funds provided for action such as replacing contaminated soil and using clay caps to contain the hazardous substances, which included lead and arsenic.

The high levels of soil contamination found in Chicago are not only an environmental issue, but they are also a human rights issue. King County in — released information about lead and arsenic which includes their effects on one’s health. Lead is more toxic to children because ingesting contaminated soil, paint chips, or any other source it may be found in, can cause both long-term and short-term health problems. However, simple exposure to lead can result in health problems as well. Short-term exposure of lead can cause brain and kidney damage while long-term exposure can cause changes to the blood and central nervous systems, blood pressure, kidneys, and the body’s ability to metabolize vitamin D.

The health effects of arsenic, however, are symptoms that could have derived from various other sources which make it difficult for people to realize that it is their environment that is giving them their health problems. The effects of short-term exposure to arsenic include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, loss of appetite, shaking, coughing and having a headache. The effects of long-term exposure to arsenic include skin pigmentation, numbness, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, vascular disease, skin cancer, kidney cancer, bladder cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, and liver cancer.

The effects of development and production have been detrimental to our planet and humankind. Now is the time to create a more positive and sustainable future. The U.S. EPA has been working to clean up the mess that humans have made; however, there is just so much of it. There needs to be more awareness and education around pollution about the harm it can have on our planet and on our health. The citizens of Calumet Heights, as well as other contaminated neighborhoods, have the right to know about what is in their soil so that they can make educated decisions about how to engage with the environment around them.

Each week during the Fall 2014 semester, students in Prof. Mike Bryson’s SUST 210 Sustainable Future and SUST 240 Waste classes at Roosevelt University will contribute blog posts on urban and suburban sustainability issues to the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future website.

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About Suburban Sustainability

Founder and editor of the Schaumburg's Sustainability Future social media project (est. Earth Day, 2011)
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