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Contaminated youth baseball field to be cleaned of brain-damaging metal starting next week

Chicago health officials say the removal of contamination at Hegewisch Babe Ruth field on the Southeast Side could last up to three weeks.

Bernard Ralich, right, and his son Daniel, live near the Hegewisch Babe Ruth youth baseball field, Bernard says a planned cleanup of manganese contamination is overdue.
Bernard Ralich, right, and his son Daniel, live near the Hegewisch Babe Ruth youth baseball field, Bernard says a planned cleanup of manganese contamination is overdue.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times, Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The city says it will begin cleanup of soil at a Southeast Side youth baseball field next week after Chicago officials discovered high levels of brain-damaging manganese there in 2019.

The remediation at Babe Ruth field at East 126th Place and South Carondolet Avenue in Hegewisch will begin Tuesday and is expected to be completed within three weeks. The area to be cleaned up is about 70 feet by 80 feet, according to the city.

The city knew about the contamination a year before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency publicly disclosed in July of 2020 that concentrations of manganese exceeded federal limits set to protect residents’ health. That same month, a state health official told league officials that adults and teens could continue playing on the field as long as grass covered the contaminated area.

However, young children should not play there, the official warned. Babe Ruth is a longtime league for players 13 to 18. Last year, EPA remediated the soil of nearby Hegewisch Little League field after the discovery of lead and arsenic in the dirt.

The Southeast Side is home to a number of polluting industries and has been at center of a public fight over a proposed car-shredding operation, which has drawn the attention of the top administrator of the EPA.

Oscar Sanchez, a community organizer and Hegewisch resident whose brothers played at Babe Ruth field, said he wishes the cleanup was done in a more timely manner.

“When it comes to these things, we’re glad this is happening but there needs to be more urgency on these issues,” Sanchez said.

Bernard Ralich, whose now-adult son Daniel played at Babe Ruth, echoed the sentiment.

“In the meantime, we’re breathing all this stuff,” Ralich said. “Hegewisch don’t get nothing. All we get is the pollution.”

The city has said it referred the matter to EPA in early 2020 “to ensure the field was appropriately characterized before notifying the public and the league.”

EPA has grouped the Babe Ruth contamination with environmental testing around the nearby Watco Terminal site on East 126th Street. That facility handles bulk solid materials, including manganese-bearing alloys.

Residents with questions about the planned cleanup can call 312 747-9884 to get more information, city health officials said.

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