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Toxic Southeast Side site should be turned into park, group says

The former Acme property, a remnant of Chicago’s steel-making past, is a public health hazard and needs a massive cleanup, according to a community organization.

Aerial view of the abandoned Acme Steel Co. coke plant at East 114th Street and South Torrence Avenue in South Deering, Thursday afternoon, September 10, 2020. | Brian Ernst/Sun-Times
Aerial view Thursday afternoon of the abandoned Acme Steel Co. coke plant at East 114th Street and South Torrence Avenue in South Deering.
Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

More than 100 acres of polluted land on the Southeast Side should be cleaned up and turned into a park or another environmentally friendly development, according to a community group petitioning the government.

The South Torrence Avenue site of the former Acme operations, which produced the steel-making fuel coke for almost a century, shut down around 2001 and has no known owner, records show. State health officials warned in a 2007 report that cancer-causing chemicals in the property’s soil posed a risk to trespassers, especially children.

Chicago’s Southeast Environmental Task Force says the land should be repurposed to complement nearby city parks Big Marsh, a former waste site for steel production, and Indian Ridge Marsh. The group is asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the land so it can be redeveloped; that process could take more than a decade and would require state and city planning.

“They are putting money into Big Marsh and those areas, and it doesn’t make sense to let something so toxic remain next to parks,” said Peggy Salazar, director of the Southeast Side group.

Salazar said she worries people are entering the property, despite fencing, unaware of the harmful chemicals and heavy metals that get kicked up from the dirt. In the early 2000s, Chicago, state and federal officials documented the site’s toxicity and the ease of “unrestricted access” to the property, according to the EPA. A 2008 city inspector’s report described “waste oil” and blue “sludge material.”

The contaminated dirt and the remaining buildings on the site pose health and physical hazards to trespassers, Illinois health officials said in their 2007 report. Two chemicals found on the site, benzo(a)pyrene and benzidine, pose cancer risks, and soil and groundwater also were contaminated with arsenic, lead, manganese, mercury and cyanide.

A cleanup could revert the land back to green space and marsh or could include a combination of recreational and commercial development, the group’s report said, citing 10 similar redevelopments of toxic sites across the country.

The land has long been abandoned. There are millions of dollars in back property taxes owed, Cook County records show. No current owner is listed on any Cook County real estate records, which means cleanup of the land may fall to the EPA’s Superfund program.

If approved, the Torrence Avenue site would be the third Superfund site in the area, joining the Schroud steel waste dump site at 126th Street and Avenue O and almost 90 acres of toxic waste dumps at 122nd Street and Stony Island Avenue. The Greater Chicago Legal Clinic, which is working with Salazar’s group, pushed for both those sites to be designated for Superfund remediation and called for updated environmental testing at Acme.

An EPA spokesman said the agency is working with state environmental officials to determine if the site is a hazard and eligible for the federal program. If not, other programs may be an option. “EPA encourages the redevelopment of sites like this and works with our state and local partners to make this a reality,” he said.

Southeast Side residents fought for decades to stop the inflow of more dirty industry while they asked government officials to address the area’s toxic legacy. The Acme site is the latest effort in that battle.

“Redevelopment of the site has the potential to improve air quality and health effects,” said the group’s report, and “also provides an opportunity to stop the disproportionate environmental impact on minority communities on the Southeast Side of Chicago.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot promised in July to address the health impacts caused by pollution in low-income communities of color.

Angela Tovar, Lightfoot’s top environmental adviser, said she’s open to working with the Southeast Side group “to move this vision forward.”

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