In a sign that funding is back on track for the ongoing environmental cleanup of the former Kerr-McGee factory site in West Chicago, the project has received a roughly $17.6 million reimbursement from the federal government.
“It’s seems like the logjam has broken,” said Kurt Stimpson, administrator for the West Chicago Environmental Response Trust that is overseeing the cleanup.Officials spent decades and roughly $1.2 billion cleaning West Chicago sites polluted with radioactive thorium waste from the former factory. But then the environmental response trust went several years without getting any federal money and was on the verge of running out of cash.
In 2014, however, U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk and other lawmakers from Illinois called for funding to be restored to the Department of Energy’s Title X program, which reimburses communities for the cleanup of sites used to produce thorium and uranium for the federal government. West Chicago received Title X reimbursements for previous cleanup work.
Funding was restored to the Title X program in fiscal 2015.
Roskam said he supported a $1.1 trillion government spending bill in December, in part because it included nearly $33 million for the Title X program. Of that money, roughly $17.6 million was given to the West Chicago cleanup project.
“It helps West Chicago clean up a serious environmental hazard,” Roskam said of the payment. “It is a matter of the federal government keeping faith with commitments it made in the past.”
West Chicago Mayor Ruben Pineda said the payment was great news. “It’s very exciting for West Chicago and for the project,” he said.
Federal officials say the trust was owed $27.9 million. It’s expected to request an additional $6.1 million in reimbursements this year.
Pineda said the latest federal payment will get West Chicago closer to the end of the project.
“We just have to make sure that the rest of the money comes in, hopefully, next year,” he said. “I hope this is something we can count on until the project is complete.”
To that end, Kirk’s office announced that the U.S. Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly approved an energy and water development appropriations bill.
If that spending legislation is approved by the House — and signed by the president — the Title X program will get $30 million for the 2017 fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.
Kirk said in a written statement he worked to get money for the Title X program, in part to support the full cleanup of the former Kerr-McGee factory site.
“Cleaning up the old Kerr-McGee factory is essential to promoting economic development in West Chicago,” said Kirk, who visited the property in 2014. “I worked to secure funding for thorium and uranium site cleanups, including the West Chicago project, in this year’s energy and water appropriations bill in order to protect public health and safety and help West Chicago thrive.”
While the property is now vacant, it once housed a factory that produced radioactive rare earth elements such as thorium for federal atomic energy and defense programs, dating to World War II.
The process created a sandlike material that the factory made available to residents for landscaping and building projects. In addition, a storm sewer from the factory site carried thorium to nearby Kress Creek and the West Branch of the DuPage River.
Then it was determined that thorium causes an increase in cancer.
Kerr-McGee, which bought the factory in 1967, started a massive cleanup to remove thorium from area waterways, hundreds of individual residential properties, Reed-Keppler Park and a wastewater treatment plant. Kerr-McGee and its spinoff, Tronox Inc., paid for most of the cleanup until Tronox filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009.
Most of the former factory site has been cleaned. But the remediation couldn’t be completed until after the other projects were done. That’s because contaminated material from those projects was temporarily stored on the property until it could be shipped to a Utah desert.
In November, the final rail cars filled with contaminated materials from the site were shipped out of town. Still, more work needs to done to resolve issues with contaminated groundwater at the site.
“We can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Stimpson, adding that the hope is to finish the remediation in three years.
Once the cleanup is done, city officials would like the property to someday become a park.