PILSEN — Five years ago, Pilsen resident Sallie Gordon wanted to start a community garden that would unite her neighborhood around farming and other activities.
Ald. Danny Solis (25th) pointed her to vacant land near 21st and Sangamon streets, and in 2009, she and others started the Growing Station, a space where residents gathered to plant everything from lettuce to jalapeno peppers in pots and large planting beds.
But in December, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency found lead levels of nearly 26,000 parts per million — an incredibly dangerous level — just 10 feet from the garden that now has Gordon and other community members frightened about their health. Already, they've had to throw away $400 of mulch stored on top of the contaminated soil that was meant to be used in the garden.
As it turned out, the EPA in 2006 tested portions of the then-vacant site, which in the 1940s was home to Loewenthal Metals Corp, a lead smelting factory. Aside from the lead, the EPA also found extremely high levels of arsenic, copper, manganese and zinc about 50 feet from the garden.
Gordon and others are furious they were encouraged to start the garden at the site in the first place and are awaiting further tests to learn just how contaminated other parts of the site might be.
In 2009, "we had no idea of the severity of pollution," Gordon said. "I'd be totally shocked if [the garden] wasn't full of lead."
The alderman's office "knew about it. They should have told us," said Milton Hall, 54, who has gardened at the site for the last three years.
Solis was out of town last week. But his office staff said the alderman did not know about the 2006 EPA tests when the garden was created. And Stacy Raker, a spokeswoman for Solis, noted in an en email that steps were taken to clean up the site before it was turned into a garden, including the removal of 18 inches of top soil which was replaced with clean dirt. They added that all planting in the garden is done in planters and beds not directly in the ground.
"Recently, following the sampling of the lot to the northwest of that property that revealed very high levels of lead in the soil, a report was made to the EPA about possible contamination at this site which they are now investigating," Raker said.
Raker said the EPA is trying to test the area closer to the garden, parts of which are owned by the BNSF railroad, whose tracks run through the property.
"Ald. Solis has urged BNSF on several occasions to grant the EPA access to all of the sites within the ward that could have potential contamination to ensure the safety of all residents," Raker said. "While we cannot speculate on the levels of lead at the site, should contamination occur there, we would focus on working diligently and swiftly with the Growing Station, the EPA, BNSF, community residents and any other stakeholders to ensure the safety of all residents and solving the contamination issue."
The EPA, too, wouldn't speculate on lead levels in the garden, but spokesman Steven Faryan said the "very high lead levels" found nearby "could present a public health threat."
He said the EPA has been trying to get BNSF to allow the testing, but "they're not being compliant."
BNSF officials, though, said despite technical delays, they still are considering the request under the "normal" time frame for such a request.
Any lead found in the garden, coupled with the findings from other parts of the site, would be cause for concern, one health official said.
"There is no safe lead level," Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said. Lead in the soil can pose a serious danger to children who play in it and then put their hands in their mouths, she said.
That's a concern because even though the garden is largely in planters, the site has turned into a community space where many spend time.
In addition to the garden, a Buddha head from the Ten Thousand Ripples project — a peace project that is supposed to draw community members to the site — also sits just feet from the fenced-off site at Cullerton Street and the train tracks. There is also a wooden platform that is used for yoga, theater and other gatherings.
Hall now wonders how much lead he might have been exposed to when he walked through the contaminated dirt on the way to the garden, where the mulch was stored.
"How much of that dust goes into our beds?" he asked.
He is particularly frustrated by the latest testing results, because he remembers what the site was like before the garden opened.
“It’s so sad, because you should have seen this place two years ago. It gave a face-lift to this park,” said Hall, who has planted mint, okra and peppers. “Now it’s parents and kids and dogs, but before that, it was scary just to walk out to your car.”