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Heavily Contaminated Smelter Site in Pilsen Now Clean, U.S. EPA Chief Says

By Chloe Riley | November 7, 2013 12:16pm | Updated on November 7, 2013 6:27pm
 The site of the cleanup at the former Lowenthal lead factory at Cullerton and Sangamon streets.
The site of the cleanup at the former Lowenthal lead factory at Cullerton and Sangamon streets.
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DNAinfo/Chloe Riley

CHICAGO — While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given a clean bill of health to a once heavily contaminated former lead smelting site, a Pilsen environmental group said there's still unresolved lead issues in that area.

In a visit to the half-acre site at 947 W. Cullerton St. Thursday, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy praised the work done to remove 4,800 tons of contaminated soil and debris from the area that was once home to Lowenthal Metals, which operated as a zinc and lead smelter and scrap metal dealer in the 1940s.

Testing at Lowenthal over the years found loud levels as high as 26,000 parts per million, an incredibly dangerous level, as well as arsenic, copper, manganese and zinc, in what is now a heavily residential area.

"Cleaning up dangerous levels of lead in Pilsen is just one example of how EPA is making a real difference for families and communities across the country — especially those most vulnerable to environmental hazards," McCarthy said, according to a statement.

While the Lowenthal site has been deemed clean, other issues loom. The city has been unable to locate the Lowenthal property's owner, James Connel, and as a result, the issue of who's paying for the site's remediation is still up in the air. The $750,000 tab was fronted by the EPA.

Ald. Danny Solis (25th) had said he would like to see a green space at the site in the future, but nothing has been finalized.

High levels of lead were also found after a July testing done on land along railroad tracks that run near the Lowenthal site. Those tracks, property of Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, have yet to be cleaned up, according to Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) President Jerry Mead-Lucero.

"The stumbling block there is BNSF, they have been very very uncooperative," Mead-Lucero said. "That’s the next big step and it’s a big issue too. They would be liable for cost of remediation."

But BNSF has said the contamination was caused by Lowenthal and it shouldn't be held responsible for the cleanup.

Despite the ongoing issues, community groups welcomed the milestone.

"It's a great day when a toxic site such as Lowenthal no longer poses a threat to a frontline community like Pilsen," Antonio Lopez, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, said in the statement.

Mead-Lucero is optimistic more work will soon be done in the community.

"We expect more sites to be addressed in the near future," he said.