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Solar farm proposed for toxic Southeast Side industrial site

The Cook County Land Bank is in talks to lease land for up to 35 years on part of the massive former Acme coke operation.

Cook County Land Bank Authority is negotiating with a solar-power company to lease part of the old Acme coke operation just south of these stacks at East 114th Street and South Torrence Avenue.
Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

A portion of a massive toxic industrial site on the Southeast Side is being considered for a future home to a solar farm.

The Cook County Land Bank Authority has taken title to land near East 114th Street and South Torrence Avenue, clearing the property’s back taxes in hopes of drawing a solar operation on about 36 acres, a spokesman said Tuesday.

The property is part of a sprawling former site of the former Acme coke operation, which has been dormant for years. The land bank wants to lease the land to California solar company SunPower for up to 35 years. A lease-option agreement is being drafted, and the company will have two years to decide if it wants to enter into a long-term lease.

The land is about a third of a massive area where the steel-making fuel coke was produced for almost a century, a remnant of Chicago’s industrial past. Earlier this year, a Southeast Side community group asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the site so it can be developed into a park or a mix of recreational and commercial space.

There were millions of dollars in back property taxes owed, Cook County records show, as the land has long been abandoned. The county land bank is set up to put properties back on the tax rolls.

The proposed transaction is a first-of-its-kind transaction for the land bank, which usually sells properties to buyers who agree to develop vacant land or buildings. Usually, the land bank takes control of a property, clears away the back taxes and sells it. The transaction the land bank seeks with SunPower is more typical of a solar development as the companies prefer long-term leases over land ownership.

State and federal officials previously identified the site as being highly toxic and posing a threat to trespassers. Surrounded by two city parks, Big Marsh and Indian Ridge Marsh, community organizers say the area is a good candidate for another recreational area.

The land bank is seeking bids from companies who will assess the environmental cleanup. “Given the history of the site, it is important that we clearly understand the challenges,” it said in a statement to the Sun-Times.

This overhead image shows the area in which SunPower’s solar facility will be located if it takes up 36 acres on the Southeast Sides.
Provided

In 2010, SunPower and Exelon developed a 41-acre solar power plant on a formerly abandoned property in West Pullman.

SunPower said it is “optimistic” about the Southeast project, adding the caveat it will need time to evaluate the site.

“These projects require thorough due diligence, and we have not yet formally entered into the phase where we can determine if this site will be viable for solar,” Nathan Griset, a SunPower senior director, said in a statement.

Peggy Salazar, whose group the Southeast Environmental Task Force petitioned the EPA about the site, said she hopes the project has a direct benefit to the surrounding community.

“I don’t have a problem with the solar farm, but if we’re going to be hosting this power generation, how do we benefit from it?” she asked.

A city official echoed Salazar’s sentiment.

“The city encourages the developer to foster deep partnerships with local leaders to ensure meaningful co-benefits for the surrounding communities,” Angela Tovar, Chicago’s chief sustainability officer, said in a statement.

Tovar added, “We are thrilled at the prospect of large-scale renewable energy generation within the city limits.”

In September, the EPA said it would work with state environmental officials to determine if the site is eligible for a federal cleanup program. A state official said she had no update on the progress.

In a statement, an EPA spokeswoman said the agency wasn’t aware of the solar project but added “many redevelopments go forward independent of the federal brownfields program.”

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