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Local News

Collins Street prison site may be tested for contamination

Land has potential for recreational uses

JOLIET – Undeveloped land just east of the Old Joliet Correctional Center could soon be tested for elevated levels of metals and other contaminants, following a report this spring that found the soil is “highly likely” to be contaminated.

The report also said contamination could limit development options on the 160-acre site that Joliet hopes to see turned into a park or some other new use.

The site, which lies just east of the old Collins Street prison extending about a half-mile east of Collins Street between Woodruff Road and Dartmouth Avenue, was once home to two stone quarry ponds and had been used for decades as a shooting range for the Illinois Department of Corrections. The site is owned by the state of Illinois.

Several city, county and state stakeholders have been in talks about the Prison East site’s potential for recreational use, said Ralph Schultz, director of planning and operations for the Forest Preserve District of Will County. But it’s likely the site will require environmental remediation before anything can be done with the property, he said.

The extent and cost of cleanup depends on what’s found in the soil, he said.

Carlson Environmental Inc., a Chicago-based consulting firm that specializes in environmental and land surveying services, noted discoloration and staining in sections of the soil this spring – a clear sign of contaminants. They recommended that a comprehensive soil sampling be done, Schultz said.

To move forward with the testing, the forest preserve district passed a resolution earlier this month seeking assistance from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for an assessment of the site, Schultz said. Previous IEPA reports had found elevated levels of metals in select areas where prison industries once operated.

“The identification of environmental conditions on the Prison East property is critical to its potential future development for public open space and recreation,” the resolution states.

Schultz said he anticipates the IEPA will designate the grounds as a “brownfield” site – or a parcel of real property that may be contaminated but has potential for redevelopment. The state agency would likely cover the costs of the assessment, he said.

Representatives from the city of Joliet, Joliet Park District, Openlands and the Forest Preserve District of Will County, among others, toured the Prison East site last year to look at redevelopment potential.

The site could be used for a mix of recreational uses, such as organized sports, hiking and fishing, according to a January 2012 technical assistance panel convened by the Urban Land Institute and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

Other community activities, including urban agriculture, could also be explored, the report states.

While IEPA will likely cover the costs of the assessment, who pays for the environmental cleanup depends on a number of factors.

According to legislation that stalled earlier this year, the state would have been liable for cleanup costs under an agreement to sell the property to Joliet for $10.

At the same time, under federal law, any party who owns or has recently purchased a contaminated site could, in theory, be held liable for all the cleanup costs. The legislation stalled amid concerns about the state’s liability should the former prison site require environmental remediation.

It’s possible that redevelopment of the Prison East site could move forward regardless of whether the prison itself – which is rapidly deteriorating – is redeveloped.

“One of the greatest benefits is the fact you have acres of open land in a very developed area in Joliet. You don’t come by that kind of land very easily,” Schultz said. “If it can be redeveloped, that’s a win-win for everybody.”

If the IEPA agrees to do the assessment, it could be completed within the next few months, Schultz said. Results would not be available for some time, though, so redevelopment of the site is still far off, he said.

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