Toxic sites mapped to promote reuse on Southeast Side

There are hundreds of contaminated sites on the city’s South Side and south suburbs that can be redeveloped, advocates say.

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MWRD soil scientist Theresa Johnston in 2020 stands on 60 acres around the Illinois International Port District treated with biological material from sewer sludge.

MWRD soil scientist Theresa Johnston is using a mapping tool to identify toxic industrial areas that could be cleaned up using biosolids.


There are more than 460 brownfields on Chicago’s Southeast Side and in the south suburbs within Cook County, according to an analysis by a group that promotes the reuse of contaminated sites.

A mapping tool developed by University of Illinois at Chicago researchers for the regional nonprofit group the Calumet Collaborative also identifies in the same area more than 1,370 leaking underground storage locations, more than a dozen hazardous waste sites, nine closed landfills and more than 670 locations taking part in a state environmental cleanup program.

The map also identifies toxic locations across the border in Indiana. In all, the map identifies more than 3,800 toxic sites, most of which are not cleaned up, on the Southeast Side, south suburbs and Northwest Indiana. And while that list includes 18 federal government Superfund sites, some of the country’s most challenging hazardous waste properties designated for cleanup, hundreds of other properties may require far less remediation.

“You could see these as no-go areas but you could also see them as opportunities,” said Janet Smith, co-director of UIC’s Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement.

The Southeast Side is about to undergo a review by city planners as part of an overall examination of Chicago’s industrial corridors. A recent report urged planners to consider the health impact on residents living around the Calumet industrial corridor. Residents are protesting moves to add more polluting industry in an area that already suffers from poor air quality and other environmental hazards. The proposed relocation of metal-shredder General Iron from the North Side to the Southeast Side has prompted federal civil rights complaints and a weekslong hunger strike

The map may also be a tool for struggling south suburban towns looking to reuse long-dormant polluted sites, whether they be former factories, gas stations or dry cleaners, said Sarah Coulter, executive director of the Calumet Collaborative. 

“They have some complications to their redevelopment,” Coulter said. “We can prioritize the best uses for the sites, as well as which ones can be redeveloped sooner than later.”

The tool is largely designed for city planners, developers, environmental groups and community members, Coulter said. 

Sean Connelly, a researcher for the Voorhees Center, said the map was created using publicly available data from government agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Illinois EPA. 

The site has been up since August but is just now being promoted.


Biosolids from sewer sludge were applied to contaminated land at the Illinois International Port District last year.


Theresa Johnston, a senior environmental soil scientist at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, has been using the tool to help identify potential locations for research related to cleanup of former industrial locations. Johnston is studying the use of biological matter derived from sewer sludge to attack contaminated land on the South Side.

The so-called biosolids are used to dilute contaminated land and add nutrients to the soil, promoting plant growth. Over time, the biological material may be able to break down toxic material. 

After embarking on a study of 60 acres around the Illinois International Port, Johnston is looking at other areas around the Southeast Side. MWRD is also doing a 30-year study on 10 acres of its land to determine the potential for biosolids as a way to clean up polluted land. 

“It’s an abundant free resource,” Johnston said of the material from sludge. 

“That’s where brownfields seem like a good fit.”

The tool can be accessed at

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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