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Long-Delayed Lakefront Park To Finally Have Radioactive Material Removed

 A model of the new DuSable Park designed by Santiago Calatrava. A model of the new DuSable Park designed by Santiago Calatrava. View Full Caption
Courtesy Grant Park Conservancy

CHICAGO — Peggy Montes still remembers when then-Mayor Harold Washington dedicated the undeveloped property on the lakefront as park land named after the first non-native settler of Chicago — Jean Baptiste Point du Sable.

While her faith in the project to actually begin has faltered in the nearly three decades since the announcement, it has finally returned, the founder of the Bronzeville Children’s Museum said Wednesday.

“Elation is the word that comes to mind,” she said. “We’ve been waiting for 30 years for something to happen. Just to think, now they do have the money to come in and clean up and the next thing that should happen very quickly is getting the revetment — getting that wall around it before that money disappears.”

While progress on the project has been slow, the Chicago Park District made a huge stride Wednesday in breaking down its biggest barrier, radioactive thorium, which was discovered in the soil of the park and around Streeterville in the 1990s.

The Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners voted hire Industrial & Environmental Services, of Gary, Ind. for the first phase of the project, which includes screening and removal of the thorium.

Out of six bids presented for the project, Industrial and Environmental Services bid of $1,416,850 was the lowest bid “and most responsible,” said Dan Cooper, environmental engineer for the Chicago Park District.

“They have committed to meeting the park district goals of 25 percent minority-owned, 5 percent women-owned business participation,” he said.

The parcel hidden between the Chicago River and the Ogden Slip was designated as a park during Washington’s time in office, but primary plans didn’t begin until 1999, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The EPA first discovered thorium contamination at Lindsay Light’s Illinois Street location back in 1993.

A general investigation of Streeterville by the EPA revealed the park land also had the radioactive material, which is naturally occurring and present “in small amounts in all rocks, soil, water, plants and animals.” It can also be lethal in large doses, according to the Tribune.

In 2012, the park district received $250,000 from a previous agreement to excavate, bag and stage for removal more than 250 cubic yards of contaminated soil, according to the EPA.

In June 2017, the park district approved a deal setting aside another $6.8 million for the ongoing cleanup thanks to a legal settlement with the Justice Department, Cooper said.

The first phase of the cleanup will include excavating the 3.5 acre parcel down to “native sand to allow for all fill material to be screened for thorium.” All thorium-infected material will then be removed, he said.

Only two sites to take the site exist — in Utah and Texas — and it must be taken by truck, said Cooper, adding that was another expense of the project.

The second phase of the project, which the park district hopes to start next year, will include tearing down the sea wall that surrounds the park land, excavating the exterior sand and installing another sea wall, he said.

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