Chicago Sun-Times

FOULED BALL

City knew Hegewisch youth base­ball field was con­tam­i­nated with man­ganese a year ago but didn’t tell league or­ga­nizer or fam­i­lies

- BRETT CHASE Environmental Protection · Ecology · U.S. Environmental Protection Agency · United States of America · Ruth · Little League · Ball

City of­fi­cials de­tected high lev­els of the brain-dam­ag­ing metal man­ganese in the dirt of a South­east Side youth base­ball field a year ago but didn’t tell league or­ga­niz­ers or fam­i­lies of play­ers.

In­stead, the city shared its find­ings with the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, which this sum­mer con­firmed the city’s early soil test­ing re­sults that high lev­els of man­ganese are present in dirt on a sec­tion of Babe Ruth Field in Hegewisch. The man­ganese lev­els are high enough the con­tam­i­nated soil needs to be re­moved, the EPA says.

The city de­ferred to EPA, ask­ing the agency to do fur­ther test­ing and no­tify youth league of­fi­cials. Say­ing they “fol­lowed stan­dard pro­to­col,” city health of­fi­cials re­ferred the mat­ter to EPA ear­lier this year “to en­sure the field was ap­pro­pri­ately char­ac­ter­ized be­fore no­ti­fy­ing the public and the league,” ac­cord­ing to a City Hall state­ment.

The COVID-19 pan­demic de­layed the 2020 sea­son for Hegewisch Babe Ruth, a league for play­ers 13 to 18, and no games were played in the spring. But a few games were played at the field at 12600 S. Caron­do­let Ave. in July, said league trea­surer Jim Laskowieck­i. Adult play­ers also played ball on the field re­cently, he said.

State: Safe to play with pre­cau­tions

De­spite the EPA’s find­ings, state health of­fi­cials told the league board in a July let­ter that the field was safe for play even with the pres­ence of man­ganese.

In fact, Brian Koch, of the Divi­sion of En­vi­ron­men­tal Health, said in the let­ter that teens and adults can play at Babe Ruth as long as grass is cov­er­ing the con­tam­i­nated area. Koch said play­ers and spec­ta­tors can min­i­mize ex­po­sure by “clean­ing cloth­ing and equip­ment of dust or loose dirt prior to leav­ing the field” and wash­ing hands af­ter play­ing. The let­ter also sug­gested re­mov­ing shoes when go­ing in­side homes, us­ing door mats and vac­u­um­ing fre­quently. And Koch rec­om­mended eat­ing a bal­anced diet with vi­ta­mins and min­er­als.

How­ever, younger kids should stay away from the field, the let­ter stated.

“Chil­dren younger than 6 years of age who play daily in this soil may be at risk of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing man­gane­sere­lated health ef­fects, in­clud­ing learn­ing and be­hav­ioral changes and other ner­vous sys­tem ef­fects such as slowed hand move­ments and in­co­or­di­na­tion,” it said.

Neigh­bors re­main wary

De­spite the state as­sur­ances, the con­tam­i­na­tion at Babe Ruth and the re­cent cleanup of lead and ar­senic at nearby Hegewisch Lit­tle League field, also on Caron­do­let, has shaken con­fi­dence of some area fam­i­lies who say gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials at all lev­els haven’t given them straight answers.

Bernard Ralich’s now adult son Daniel played at both the Lit­tle League and Babe Ruth fields as a teenager. His grand­son Gavin is a Hegewisch Lit­tle Lea­guer where play at that nearby field re­sumed in re­cent weeks fol­low­ing the EPA cleanup.

Af­ter notic­ing a sign at a site near the Lit­tle League field warn­ing of toxic ma­te­rial, Ralich said he con­tacted EPA and other gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials mul­ti­ple times in 2019 prior to any public warn­ings about con­tam­i­na­tion. He’s con­cerned about the han­dling of cleanups at both youth fields and called the city’s fail­ure to no­tify res­i­dents of its find­ings “bull----.”

“What about the kids? Do we have to get them checked? We don’t get no answers,” he said.

Hegewisch res­i­dent Os­car Sanchez, a com­mu­nity ac­tivist whose broth­ers played at Babe Ruth in the past, called the gov­ern­ment re­sponses and lack of open­ness with the res­i­dents frus­trat­ing.

“It’s not only the pol­lu­tion, it’s also in­di­vid­u­als not un­der­stand­ing the health risks,” Sanchez said. City and other gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials need to bet­ter com­mu­ni­cate these en­vi­ron­men­tal risks, he added.

Years of ten­sion

The con­tam­i­nated youth ball fields are just the lat­est in years­long ten­sions be­tween gov­ern­ment agen­cies and neigh­bors con­cerned about the cu­mu­la­tive ef­fects of pol­lut­ing in­dus­tries on the South­east Side. A num­ber of res­i­dents are fight­ing the planned move of scrap iron shred­der Gen­eral Iron to the South­east Side.

“We don’t need any more pol­lu­tion,” Ralich said of Gen­eral Iron.

EPA says it’s still try­ing to de­ter­mine the source of the man­ganese con­tam­i­na­tion but the agency’s web­site groups the Babe Ruth soil con­tam­i­na­tion with other en­vi­ron­men­tal test­ing around the nearby Watco Ter­mi­nal site on East 126th Street, which han­dles bulk solid ma­te­ri­als such as man­ganese-bear­ing al­loys.

EPA said it’s work­ing with the city “to de­ter­mine what next steps will be taken” re­lated to cleanup at Babe Ruth. City health of­fi­cials said they hope to have the field re­me­di­ated by spring.

The agency re­cently com­pleted re­me­di­a­tion of the Hegewisch Lit­tle League field af­ter de­ter­min­ing it was con­tam­i­nated. The agency said it re­moved al­most 1,200 tons of lead and ar­senic con­tam­i­nated soil and re­placed it with clean dirt. The EPA de­ter­mined that Watco was not the source of those con­tam­i­nants found at the Lit­tle League ball­park.

“WHAT ABOUT THE KIDS? DO WE HAVE TO GET THEM CHECKED? WE DON’T GET NO ANSWERS.’’ BERNARD RALICH, grand­fa­ther of a Hegewisch Lit­tle Lea­guer

 ?? PAT NABONG/SUN-TIMES ?? The EPA con­firmed this sum­mer that high lev­els of man­ganese are present in dirt on a sec­tion of Babe Ruth Field in Hegewisch.
PAT NABONG/SUN-TIMES The EPA con­firmed this sum­mer that high lev­els of man­ganese are present in dirt on a sec­tion of Babe Ruth Field in Hegewisch.
 ?? PAT NABONG/SUN-TIMES ?? The EPA con­firmed that high lev­els of man­ganese are present in dirt on a sec­tion of Babe Ruth Field in Hegewisch.
PAT NABONG/SUN-TIMES The EPA con­firmed that high lev­els of man­ganese are present in dirt on a sec­tion of Babe Ruth Field in Hegewisch.

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