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Officials push for funds to finish West Chicago factory cleanup

WEST CHICAGO – A West Chicago trust could receive about $6 million from the federal government as early as October to continue the cleanup of a contaminated factory site.

While only a fraction of the estimated $30 million needed to complete efforts at the old Kerr-McGee factory, the amount would be enough to move forward with removing remaining pollutants and ship them out of state.

Until the West Chicago Environmental Response Trust receives federal funds, however, workers are left to spread top soil over the areas at the factory site that have been cleaned and leave the existing contaminants where they are. Eventually, efforts could be stopped entirely.

"The federal government is bound to do this. They have to pay," U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Wheaton, said at a press conference Tuesday at the Kerr-McGee factory site, 800 Weyrauch St.

In April, West Chicago Mayor Ruben Pineda wrote a letter to Roskam and other elected officials, warning the trust would have to cease operations if an already promised reimbursement of $15 million was not provided through the Department of Energy’s Title X program.

Title X funding has not been included in the federal budget since before 2009, according to information provided by Roskam's office.

At the urging of Roskam and other representatives from areas affected by a lack of Title X funding, the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month passed the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act, which included $20 million for Title X.

The Senate is expected to take up the bill by the end of September, when the current fiscal year ends.

The Kerr-McGee 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 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website.

In January 2009, Tronox – formerly Kerr-McGee – filed for bankruptcy and ceased its own cleanup of the contaminated West Chicago sites, the website states.

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. As part of the agreement, the federal government was charged with reimbursing the trust for its work.

Of the areas polluted by the factory, one residential lot and part of the factory site itself still need to be cleaned.

"We won't dig more material until we are sure we have enough money to pay for an off-site disposal," said Kurt Stimpson, trust administer.

How long it will take to complete the cleanup depends on the funds received by the government. If $30 million came to the trust now, work could be finished in less than two years, Stimpson said.

While the bill passed by the House asks for an initial $20 million in Title X funding that would include $6 million specifically for West Chicago, Roskam said the hope is to continue to appropriate funds for this purpose each year.

This goal is happy news for the city, which has long prioritized the Kerr-McGee site cleanup and hopes to one day put a park in its place, Pineda said.

"After 40 years, we want something that we can put there that we can be proud of and have there for the rest of our future," he said.


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