CHICAGO — Samples taken after a demolition gone wrong left Little Village streets covered in a cloud of dust didn’t contain asbestos or toxic metals, city officials said Monday.
City officials said they believe the validated test results show there is no apparent health risk to Little Village neighbors. The test results are available for the public to review on a new city website.
Testing did show small concentrations of lead and barium in the dust, but health experts determined the levels found do not present an apparent health risk to residents, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Dr. Allison Arwady, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, announced in a joint statement.
The testing, which included analysis of particulate matter, dust composition, building debris and soil composition, was conducted by the Chicago Department of Public Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The data was validated by a non-governmental agency, city officials said.
On April 11, the same day as the old Crawford Coal Plant smokestack was blown up, the Chicago Department of Public Health collected 14 neighborhood dust wipe samples, which were tested for asbestos and metals, including lead, cadmium, selenium, nickel and zinc, chromium and arsenic.
On April 13, the department tested soil samples for the presence of asbestos, polynuclear aromatics (PNAs), semi-volatile organic compounds, PCBs, pesticides and inorganics. On April 14, the city installed SUMMA air-monitoring devices and additional air monitors will be installed in the next several weeks.
Air quality tests show no particulate levels considered to be unsafe for human health. Results were in line with EPA standards. Specifically, the EPA measured particulate matter 2.5 and 10, and found no sustained readings were above the national air quality standard threshold.
SUMMA canister air tests did reveal low levels of volatile organic compounds (known as VOCs), and the Department of Public Health is reviewing these results with experts to better understand potential sources and impacts. Those testing results will be compared to background levels found in the air in Little Village and across the city.
Soil samples collected from the old Crawford coal plant site were also analyzed. Results revealed metals in the form of arsenic, barium, lead and mercury, were found at the site, which is consistent with the plant’s former use. Health professionals believe these levels do not currently pose a health risk to the surrounding community, city officials said.
The city fined Hilco Redevelopment Partners $68,000 for its role in the demolition of a smokestack at the plant. The Illinois EPA has cited Hilco with breaking air and water pollution laws.
The botched demolition, which happened with little notice and during a respiratory pandemic, blanketed the community with dust. The dust cloud was widely recorded on video and in photographs.
The city is letting Hilco and its contractors clean up debris at the old coal plant site, but other work is still banned.
Neighbors say more information needed
Despite the city’s urging that no particulate matter was present following the implosion, a purple air monitor just north of the former Crawford peaked following the implosion to levels “that could have resulted in sensitive groups experiencing effects if exposed to the air for 24 hours,” according to the Tribune.
Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environment Justice Organization, said the results “come down to interpretation.”
The new data provided by the city is a “good start” but more information is still needed, Wasserman said. The group plans to conduct an independent review of the reports with UIC professors.
“We want to go through it ourselves and see if what they are saying are factual,” Wasserman said.
“We have a long history in which, the city and the state have less stringent regulation or vice versa. When they use the word safe, we want to understand what they mean by that. What levels are they referring to?” Wasserman asked. “What are they using as a standard that are deemed acceptable?”
Little Village neighbors are still concerned about the air quality, and the potential for soil contamination in their gardens, she said.
Asked Monday whether neighbors can trust the results, Lightfoot reiterated the testing was validated by the Chicago Department of Public Health and the U.S. EPA.
“We have really done a lot to try to engage with members of the community. Not just to push information out but to hear from the residents and make sure that feedback loop is active and engaged,” Lightfoot said.
Little Village activists have called on Hilco to abandon its $100 million plan to redevelop the site into a 1-million-square-foot distribution center.
The city and EPA are continuing the sample and monitor air quality in the area.
“Based on the validated results that we are publishing today we have no reason to believe the implosion emitted additional toxic materials into the surrounding community, but the department remains committed to continue ongoing tests of the site to monitor these levels,” Arwady said.
Lightfoot said the health of Chicago residents in “all of its 77 neighborhoods” remains a top priority during the coronavirus pandemic.
“… We remain committed to maintaining the health and wellness of Chicagoans, and conducting these tests were crucial to our understanding of what the environmental and health implications of the incident are for residents in the nearby community,” Lightfoot said.
Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.