West Chicago trust seeks promised federal funds for cleanup of polluted sites

WEST CHICAGO – The West Chicago Environmental Response Trust is seeking a promised reimbursement of more than $15 million from the federal government to support the environmental cleanup of sites contaminated by the old Kerr-McGee factory in West Chicago.

To encourage Congress to make good on an agreement approved in 2011, West Chicago Mayor Ruben Pineda wrote a letter to U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Wheaton, and other elected officials, warning the trust may have to cease work if funds are not provided through the Department of Energy’s Title X program, as promised.

In his letter, Pineda said it is “disheartening ... to all of us at the local level who have worked so hard to successfully complete the project when it appears that the United States is choosing to ignore its part of the bargain.”

In January 2009, Tronox – formerly Kerr-McGee – filed for bankruptcy and ceased its own cleanup of the contaminated West Chicago sites, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website.

In order to move these efforts forward, a bankruptcy settlement agreement was reached with Tronox in February 2011 that provided for the creation of the West Chicago Environmental Response Trust to continue the cleanup, the website states.

As part of the agreement, the federal government was charged with reimbursing the trust for its work, West Chicago City Administrator Michael Guttman said.

The multimillion-dollar payment in question is needed to get the federal government caught up with the funds it was expected to provide to the trust thus far, he said.

In a statement issued by Roskam’s office, Spokeswoman Stephanie Kittredge said that “Congressman Roskam has been following the situation very closely and is working to ensure the Department of Energy meets its legal obligations to our local community.”

The Kerr-McGee factory is east of the Wisconsin Central Railroad, west of Joliet Street, north of Roosevelt Road and south of Ann Street, Guttman said.

The factory operated between 1932 and 1973, contaminating surrounding areas – including parts of Kress Creek and the West Branch DuPage River, a sewage treatment plant, residential sites and Reed-Keppler Park – with radioactive thorium waste material, according to the EPA website.

But West Chicago is not the only town polluted by the Kerr-McGee Corporation.

The U.S. recently entered into a settlement agreement with the corporation, its affiliates and parent company Anadarko Petroleum Corporation in a fraudulent conveyance case, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

In December 2013, the Kerr-McGee Corporation was found to have fraudulently conveyed assets to a new company to evade its debts, including its liability for environmental cleanup at contaminated sites around the country, a justice department news release stated.

The defendants agreed to pay $5.15 billion to settle the case, of which about $4.4 billion will fund cleanup and cover environmental claims, according to the release. The settlement does not include West Chicago.

Only one residential lot and part of the factory site itself remain to be cleaned out of all the West Chicago sites contaminated by Kerr-McGee, Guttman said.

The residence is expected to be completed this year by the EPA, not the trust, he said. The completion of the factory site cleanup will depend on whether the federal government catches up with its payments to the trust.