LIT­TLE LEAGUE FIELD WITH HIGH LEV­ELS OF LEAD, AR­SENIC GET­TING EPA CLEANUP

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY BRETT CHASE, STAFF RE­PORTER bchase@sun­times.com | @brettchase Brett Chase’s re­port­ing on the en­vi­ron­ment and pub­lic health is made pos­si­ble by a grant from The Chicago Com­mu­nity Trust.

A South Side Lit­tle League field where kids played as re­cently as last sum­mer is be­ing torn up to re­move dirt with high lev­els of lead and ar­senic.

U.S. en­vi­ron­men­tal of­fi­cials said they will be­gin ex­ca­vat­ing and re­mov­ing the con­tam­i­nated soil at Hegewisch Lit­tle League Field Tues­day and will re­place it with clean dirt. The cleanup is ex­pected to last 20 days, the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Protection Agency said.

“Con­di­tions at the site present an im­mi­nent and sub­stan­tial threat to the pub­lic health, or wel­fare, or the en­vi­ron­ment and meet the cri­te­ria for a time-crit­i­cal re­moval ac­tion,” the EPA said in a memo dated March 3.

Adam Gutierrez, pres­i­dent of Hegewisch Lit­tle League, said the EPA con­tacted the league last fall to say it was test­ing the field.

In doc­u­ments, the EPA didn’t pro­vide a clear ex­pla­na­tion of what caused the con­tam­i­na­tion but noted the sur­round­ing area’s long his­tory of in­dus­trial ac­tiv­ity. The site was a base­ball field since at least 1964 and was va­cant prior to then, the agency said.

While he was sur­prised by the find­ings, Gutierrez said res­i­dents have long been aware of the heavy in­dus­try around the park and said he’s grate­ful that the field is be­ing cleaned up.

“A lot of peo­ple in the com­mu­nity have been play­ing there for years,” he said. “We al­ways joke about what’s in the wa­ter, but I guess it’s in the grass.”

While about 100 chil­dren played Lit­tle League at the field last year, the sea­son never got started this year be­cause of the COVID-19 pan­demic, he said.

The EPA said it tested dirt at the field and else­where in the area as part of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into po­ten­tial man­ganese con­tam­i­na­tion from the nearby Watco Ter­mi­nal site on 126th Street. Con­cerned about the health im­pacts of ex­po­sure of man­ganese dust, the city of Chicago im­posed tougher rules on com­pa­nies that han­dle it in 2019.

While the EPA said it didn’t find ex­ces­sively high lev­els of man­ganese at the Hegewisch site, it did find high lev­els of lead and ar­senic on about one-third of the field that re­quired re­moval of the con­tam­i­nated dirt. It de­ter­mined Watco was not likely the source of those con­tam­i­nants.

In Jan­uary 2019, U.S. Sens. Richard Durbin and Tammy Duck­worth asked the EPA to do soil sam­pling in the neigh­bor­hood around the Watco fa­cil­ity. That sam­pling in­cluded soil tests at more than 50 homes, ac­cord­ing to EPA records. None of the homes sam­pled found lev­els of man­ganese, lead or ar­senic high enough to re­quire the agency to take im­me­di­ate ac­tion, records show.

The EPA sam­pled dirt at the Lit­tle League field, 127th Street and Caron­do­let Av­enue, last Septem­ber.

“EPA de­ter­mined that the con­tam­i­na­tion found at the Hegewisch Lit­tle League Field was not re­lated to the Watco Ter­mi­nal Site be­cause the con­tam­i­na­tion was lead and ar­senic, likely from his­tor­i­cal fill ma­te­rial be­low the field,” the agency said in a March doc­u­ment.

The agency will spend up to $691,295 on the project, ac­cord­ing to the doc­u­ment.

EPA said on its web­site that it’s also test­ing soil at an­other nearby Hegewisch youth base­ball field, Babe Ruth Field, at the re­quest of the city.

Both fields are lo­cated near a 67acre EPA toxic waste site, Schroud, which was des­ig­nated for high-pri­or­ity cleanup last year. The site was a dump­ing ground for steel slag from the 1950s at least through the late 1970s, the EPA said.

“It’s legacy pol­lu­tion,” said Gina Ramirez, a South­east Side com­mu­nity ac­tivist. “I think it would be awe­some if the U.S. EPA did a brief­ing on the soil sit­u­a­tion with all the com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions that have been ask­ing for years. I think the com­mu­nity de­serves to have an­swers.”

“A LOT OF PEO­PLE IN THE COM­MU­NITY HAVE BEEN PLAY­ING THERE FOR YEARS. WE AL­WAYS JOKE ABOUT WHAT’S IN THE WA­TER, BUT I GUESS IT’S IN THE GRASS.” ADAM GUTIERREZ, Hegewisch Lit­tle League pres­i­dent

The Hegewisch Lit­tle League Field at 12710 S. Caron­do­let Ave. will have its con­tam­i­nated soil re­placed be­gin­ning Tues­day.

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