PILSEN — Recent tests reveal high levels of lead at railroad tracks near the former Lowenthal lead factory, leaving a round robin of finger-pointing about who’s responsible for cleanup at the site eyed for a park.
On June 21, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tested soil samples along railroad tracks belonging to Burlington Northern Santa Fe, an area that borders the old Lowenthal site at Cullerton and Sangamon streets.
In a U.S. EPA report dated July 10, results indicated lead levels at the track’s southernmost part at 21st and Sangamon streets are high enough that the area needs to be either cleaned or covered immediately, said U.S. EPA site coordinator Steve Faryan.
BNSF and Ald. Danny Solis (25th) are debating responsibility for the site. In the meantime, the polluted tracks — located just east of a community garden — remain uncovered.
The railroad company said that the lead contamination on its property is a direct result of the EPA’s ongoing cleanup of the former Lowenthal site that borders the BNSF lot.
"As an adjacent landowner, we had nothing to do with the contamination," said BNSF spokesman Andy Williams. “The lead contamination is from the Lowenthal Metals site. BNSF believes it should enjoy the same protections as the other innocent landowners in the area in terms of the cleanup."
The railroad paid to take soil samples from the area and gave them to the U.S. EPA for analysis, he said.
Williams charged that the EPA "has declined to engage in further conversations with BNSF and the city after first agreeing to try to work through the issues."
A U.S. EPA spokesman was not available for comment Tuesday.
Solis still is pushing for a green space, such as a park or garden, at the Lowenthal site. BNSF originally planned to donate a chunk of its property to the city. That chunk — along the east side of Sangamon Street, stretching from 21st to 18th street — would then be converted into a park space with a walking trail.
"It's an unfortunate situation because we were considering a request to rail bank this property for a rails-to-rails project, creating a linear walking park and green space," Williams said, adding that BNSF may scrap the land donation altogether.
Whether or not the BNSF land donation comes through, Solis plans to go ahead with the Lowenthal green space, Solis spokeswoman Stacy Raker said.
The community can weigh in on the proposed Lowenthal green space at a public meeting held by the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 19 at Casa Morelos, 2015 S. Morgan St.