Polluted land awaits cleanup

Source: http://www.mysuburbanlife.com, March 21, 2012
By: Elizabeth Stoever

Site remediation depends on owners

Since completing construction of his home in the 200 block of Ninth Street in 1956, Alfred Martinez, 89, has lived within sight of what he calls “the most polluted area in St. Charles.”

Once located next to an active railroad, the land between Sixth and 12th streets north of Dean and State streets has been used by several industrial businesses since the late 1800’s. Over the past century, portions of the 336,000 square-foot plot of industrial space were used for dumping and settling lagoons for manufacturing byproducts, according to a study by development advisors S.B. Friedman and Company.

But with the site now vacated, city leaders have been in talks with developers to clean up the land.

Since the site has a long history of multiple manufacturers, “it’s hard to say what businesses were responsible for what,” when it comes to the land’s contamination, said Russell Colby, the city’s planning division manager.

Therefore, taxpayers will likely foot the bill to clean up and remove contaminants from the site. The city has already proposed using tax revenue generated by a possible future housing development to cover the $4.9 million estimated remediation and land preparation costs. That estimated price also includes the cost to demolish buildings used by Applied Composite that were removed from the site about two years ago.

But other than offering developers funding, the city’s involvement with the site’s remediation is limited. The level of remediation required by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency depends on the property owners and how they use the site.

Applied Composites — which produced fiberglass — auctioned off the site “as is,” according to Colby. Lexington Homes, a Chicago-based developer, purchased the land in Aug. 2006 and proposed building about 142 townhouses, row houses and single family homes on the site.

Illinois EPA cleanup standards required for a residential area will be much more stringent than if another industrial company took the land, according to Stan Black, a community relations coordinator the Illinois EPA.

“It has to be clean enough for (children) to get their hands dirty and eat with them,” he said.

If the housing proposal is approved by the city, the developer will hire an environmental contractor and cover the remediation costs up front. After the homes begin producing tax revenue, the city would reimburse the developer for the costs, Colby said.

A recent study paid for by Lexington Homes identified at least 11 recognized environmental conditions as a result of manufacturing operations, including former settling lagoons, mounds of buried materials, underground storage tanks and other contamination. The study also called for “significant environmental remediation” to remove hazardous substances and an estimated 8,000 to 9,000 cubic yards contaminated soils.

Martinez, the homeowner, recalled a company produced plastic helmets at the site in 1956. At first, he said company employees dumped materials on the southeast side of the property. Since it wasn’t far from residents’ backyards, he said a fight started between the city and neighbors. He said there was also concern that a small runoff creek in front of his home was carrying pollution into the Fox River.

While unverified, Martinez said the dumping site was relocated to the northwest section of the industrial land. At the time, Martinez said it was no secret.

“Everyone knew,” he said. “That was in the ‘50s. The laws were different back then.”

Martinez believes some of the dumped byproducts are still there, just buried.

However, since St. Charles residents are required to use cleaned public drinking water rather than well water, Black — at the EPA — said that there’s no threat to residents.

“That would be the only concern of the site as it stands,” he said.

As a result, Alderman William Turner said the site is viewed as a “gray area” that isn’t good for the community in the long term, but doesn’t need to be cleaned up in the short-term either.

“It’s something not critical to do right away,” he said.

Due to the 2008 housing crisis, he also isn’t surprised that the land is still empty, even after the developer’s affiliates purchased the site.

While the city expressed interest in keeping the site from manufacturers — who are unlikely to completely remediate the land — the city has yet to be rezone the site for any other use. If Lexington Homes’ proposal falls through, another manufacturing business could take the land.

“That’s been known to happen,” Black said.

Yet he added that a manufacturer may be hesitant to take the land due to liability concerns.

Alderman Raymond Rogina acknowledged that regardless of the city’s wishes for a housing development Lexington Homes could sell the property to a manufacturer, which could begin building on the site immediately because of the way the land is still zoned.

Meanwhile, he said Lexington Homes’ proposals are posing other concerns, such as high traffic and density of homes.

“Sure, we want it cleaned up, but for what (type of development)?” Rogina asked. “It’s probably one of the more challenging issues that has come before me, at least.”

Unless the residential development is approved by the city, there’s no timeline as to when the site will be cleaned up. Developers also have yet to respond to traffic and density concerns after a February planning and development committee meeting. A discussion of the project scheduled March 12 was postponed by the city. Future discussion has yet to be announced.

For now, metal barrels and piles of concrete still litter the site. But that’s only what can been seen above ground.

Black explained that plans for site cleanup will have to be approved by the Illinois EPA before crews move forward with work to ensure the public isn’t exposed to contaminated soils.

But some, such as Martinez, expressed concern that chemicals that might be buried at the site could do harm if they’re resurfaced.

He said what might be buried beneath is a mystery.

“They start digging, I don’t know what they’re going to find,” he said.

Lexington Homes did not return calls for comment.

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