Update on radioactive thorium cleanup near West Chicago

The Chicago Tribune has an update on the thorium cleanup in western DuPage County. The story provides an overview of the issue: a rare earths plant in West Chicago closed down in 1973, leading to a long battle between the company that had acquired the facility and different government bodies to get the radioactive thorium removed. Here is where there is still some thorium awaiting cleanup:

About $21 million is needed for work scheduled this year on the West Branch of the DuPage River and an adjacent creek, officials say. But more than a third of that is still up in the air.

“We are so close to being at the finish line,” said John “Ole” Oldenburg, director of natural resources for the DuPage County Forest Preserve District, who has been working with Naperville, Warrenville and other local municipalities along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the cleanup since it began in 2005…

Cleanup has occurred along 7 of the 8 river miles where thorium was identified, including Kress Creek and the West Branch of the DuPage River from the West Chicago Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant to the northern end of McDowell Grove County Forest Preserve in Naperville. Three sites remain: an area near Bower Elementary School in Warrenville, part of Kress Creek that runs under the Illinois Highway 59 bridge and a part of the forest preserve…

The river and creek constitute one of four sites in DuPage County designated by the federal government as Superfund sites, all of which were left in the wake of the Rare Earths Facility. Work at two of the sites has been completed, and remediation efforts continue at the site of the factory.

Hopefully this gets cleaned up soon so these suburbs can put this story behind them.

Here are few things that are understated in this story:

1. While the article suggests there wasn’t much scrutiny until 1976, there were signs in earlier years. At several points, residents complained about various issues (plants dying, for example) and the city was also worried about contaminated water. But no one knew the full scope of the problem until a bigger investigation was started and then radioactive waste was found on many properties in town that had once used the fill-in material with thorium waste offered for free by the facility.

1a. I’ve never seen the story about an “unnamed tipster” alerting people to the radioactive waste. What I do know is that a West Chicago resident filed a civil suit in US District Court in July 1976 questioning the competence of Kerr-McGee in properly handling the radioactive waste.

2. There is not much mention of the protests and legal wrangling over the issue between the mid 1970s and late 1980s before the Thorium Action Group (TAG) came on the scene. A small early 1980s protest consisting of roughly 50 to 100 people marching through the town even drew the attention of the New York Times. The court case bounced around as the courts sorted out who was responsible for regulating the clean-up (with national, state, and local governments all involved).

3. The negative effect the radioactive waste had on West Chicago’s image. One Chicago media source dubbed West Chicago the “radioactivity capital of the Midwest.” It wasn’t until plans for removal came together in the early 1990s that West Chicago was able to start turning a corner.

4. Something hinted at the article as officials think “the thorium does not pose an immediate public health risk”: one of the issues in the last two decades of cleanup has been the adoption of stricter standards for “acceptable” radioactivity. This has led to more cleanup sites and even repeat cleanup sites.

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  1. The officials at the IL NRC back in the day, as well as the past licensing board should all have been jailed for gross negligence and/or manslaughter–but at the top of the “bad actors” list is Kerr-McGee, of course. People have died in West Chicago because of this malfeasance–DIED. What is worse than causing someone to die before their reasonably expected time??

    If I can do anything legal or ethical to pay back this soulless corporation, particularly in their money and reputation, I’ll do it.
    Amber Ladeira
    Errors Explored and Revealed

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