Little League field with high levels of lead, arsenic to get $700K cleanup

The EPA said Monday that conditions at the site present an “imminent and substantial threat.”

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Hegewisch Little League field located at 12710 S. Carondolet Ave. will begin a soil cleanup Tuesday.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A South Side Little League field where kids played as recently as last summer is being torn up to remove dirt with high levels of lead and arsenic.

U.S. environmental officials said they will begin excavating and removing the contaminated soil at Hegewisch Little League Field Tuesday and will replace it with clean dirt. The cleanup is expected to last 20 days, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.

“Conditions at the site present an imminent and substantial threat to the public health, or welfare, or the environment and meet the criteria for a time-critical removal action,” the EPA said in a memo dated March 3.

Adam Gutierrez, president of Hegewisch Little League, said the EPA contacted the league last fall to say it was testing the field.

In documents, the EPA didn’t provide a clear explanation of what caused the contamination but noted the surrounding area’s long history of industrial activity. The site was a baseball field since at least 1964 and was vacant prior to then, the agency said.

While he was surprised by the findings, Gutierrez said residents have long been aware of the heavy industry around the park and said he’s grateful that the field is being cleaned up.

“A lot of people in the community have been playing there for years,” he said. “We always joke about what’s in the water but I guess it’s in the grass.”

While about 100 children played Little League at the field last year, the season never got started this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

The EPA said it tested dirt at the field and elsewhere in the area as part of an investigation into potential manganese contamination from the nearby Watco Terminal site on 126th Street. Concerned about the health impacts of exposure of manganese dust, the city of Chicago imposed tougher rules on companies that handle it in 2019.

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The Hegewisch Little League field at 12710 S. Carondolet Ave.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

While the EPA said it didn’t find excessively high levels of manganese at the Hegewisch site, it did find high levels of lead and arsenic on about one-third of the field that required removal of the contaminated dirt. It determined Watco was not likely the source of those contaminants.

In January 2019, U.S. Sens. Richard Durbin and Tammy Duckworth asked the EPA to do soil sampling in the neighborhood around the Watco facility. That sampling included soil tests at more than 50 homes, according to EPA records. None of the homes sampled found levels of manganese, lead or arsenic high enough to require the agency to take immediate action, records show.

The EPA sampled dirt at the Little League field, 127th Street and Carondolet Avenue, last September.

“EPA determined that the contamination found at the Hegewisch Little League Field was not related to the Watco Terminal Site because the contamination was lead and arsenic, likely from historical fill material below the field,” the agency said in a March document.

The agency will spend up to $691,295 on the project, according to the document.

EPA said on its website that it’s also testing soil at another nearby Hegewisch youth baseball field, Babe Ruth Field, at the request of the city.

Both fields are located near a 67-acre EPA toxic waste site, Schroud, which was designated for high-priority cleanup last year. The site was a dumping ground for steel slag from the 1950s at least through the late 1970s, the EPA said.

“It’s legacy pollution,” said Gina Ramirez, a Southeast Side community activist. “I think it would be awesome if the U.S. EPA did a briefing on the soil situation with all the community organizations that have been asking for years. I think the community deserves to have answers.”

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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