In 2004, concerns about foul-smelling smoke coming from the stacks of a Pilsen factory spurred an advisory referendum on lead contamination in the neighborhood, sponsored by the Pilsen/Southwest Side Green Party. The referendum passed by ninety-five percent, an overwhelming show of support that kickstarted an investigation into lead contamination in the Pilsen area conducted by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) and the Chicago Department of Environment (CDOE).
Ten years and two cleanups later, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is back for more, after recent tests found lead in the soil around the same H. Kramer & Company factory, located at the intersection of 21st Street and South Loomis Street.
The H. Kramer factory smelts scrap metal to produce bronze ingots, which are ten to twenty-five percent lead; the process produces fumes containing lead oxide. This was one reason that residents were worried about the smoke coming from the H. Kramer plant, especially given Pilsen’s industrial history. Lead is a common concern in Pilsen, along with the rest of the Southwest Side; Kimberly Wasserman, director of organizing and strategy for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, explained that the Southwest Side has “a historic legacy with lead in homes, as a pollutant and as a legacy issue from industry that left behind toxins.” In Pilsen, lead from the H. Kramer fumes blows over the neighborhood and settles in the soil.
The federal EPA estimates that 54,366 pounds of lead have been emitted by H. Kramer since 1987, resulting in dozens of complaints over the years. In 1997, the EPA ordered H. Kramer to take steps to reduce fugitive emissions, or emissions which come from outside the factory stacks. These steps included reconstructing two baghouses, which trap dust from the production process, and surveying ducts for leaks. H. Kramer abided with that investigation and a subsequent 1999 CDOE investigation by replacing aged furnaces and conducting extensive roof repairs, as well as replacing and repairing other aging equipment.
But continued concerns about the content of H. Kramer’s fumes resulted in the 2004 referendum, after which members of the Pilsen/Southwest Side Green Party formed the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO). PERRO has since spearheaded efforts to organize the community and educate them on the federal and state EPAs’ efforts to monitor and clean up the lead contamination. In March 2005, they analyzed soil samples from around the factory and found that the concentrations of lead in eight of the twelve samples exceeded the EPA Removal Management Level (RML) standards of 400mg/ kg.
These high levels of lead are particularly dangerous for pregnant women, as well as children, who are more likely to ingest soil while playing outside. The presence of lead dust in the soil is made more concerning by the presence of two schools, the Manuel Perez Jr. Elementary School and the Benito Juarez Community Academy, near the H. Kramer factory. Exposure to lead can cause children to experience behavioral and learning difficulties and lower IQs.
Following PERRO’s sampling and analysis, the IEPA undertook its own investigation in June 2005 and found that in fifteen of the seventeen samples taken, the amount of lead exceeded 1000mg/kg, more than twice the RML standards. The IEPA conducted a cleanup on September 7 of that year to remove around six cubic yards of contaminated soil and replace it with gravel. Further cleanup efforts in 2011 decontaminated 2,769 cubic yards of soil. In March 2012, the IEPA officially released H. Kramer from further responsibilities related to the 2005 injunction.
But concerns about lead contamination continued, this time regarding the airborne pollution being released directly from the H. Kramer plant. To address this, an investigation requested by the federal EPA found in March 2011 that of two possible sources of the pollution, H. Kramer was the main contributor of airborne lead particles at sites near the two schools. H. Kramer did not respond to a request for comment.
The current EPA cleanup stems from yet another survey of lead contamination in Pilsen, conducted in May, July, and August of 2013. With the permission of residents, samples were taken from residential areas in Pilsen, as well as from two reference areas in Little Italy and Harrison Park. All the tested areas had at least one category in which lead concentrations exceeded the 400 mg/kg RML standard. Additional sampling took place in April 2016, the results of which have not yet been released.
The EPA’s latest monthly report, dated May 13, 2016, described the actions that have been taken with the spring 2016 samples and the progress of cleanup coordination. TRC Environmental Corporation, the company that the EPA has contracted to analyze the results, is currently testing the soil samples and flagging those with high lead concentrations; treatability tests are also being conducted. The next step is choosing a contractor to conduct the remediation process and treat the remaining lead-contaminated soil.
PERRO plans to knock on doors in the contaminated area every other Saturday. For residents to get their soil tested and replaced by the EPA on H. Kramer’s dime, they need to sign consent forms. But Rose Gomez, a PERRO organizer, explained to the Weekly that even potentially affected residents may need an extra nudge. “People are busy, they might have missed the notice, and they might not know they’re eligible,” Gomez said.
The EPA has sent notices to the owners of the property, but if the property is rented, as many of the homes in the area are, the landlords are likely to be less invested in the cleanup than the tenants.
“There’s been some issues with getting property owners to agree, since a lot of them just don’t want to deal with it or are worried that it will scare people and that their property will get devalued,” Troy Hernandez, a PERRO member, said.
Additionally, many residents are undocumented, Hernandez said, and although the EPA does not engage with immigration, many undocumented residents are reluctant to get involved with a federal agency. Because of these complications, so far only thirty of the 120 homeowners in the area have signed consent forms.
For Hernandez, however, the lead in the soil is only the beginning—there’s also the lead in the water service lines across the city, which can get disturbed when water mains are replaced.
“The city’s done a good job on playing down [lead contamination] as not being a problem, while at the same time they recognize it is a problem and are doing things to mitigate it,” Hernandez said. “They’re kind of playing both sides.”