I lived in a suburban house with radioactive thorium in the front yard

The first home my parents purchased was on the southwest side of West Chicago, a small suburb in the western part of DuPage County. While the community was the known for the railroad, industry, and a sizable population of Mexican residents, what we did not know was in the ground in our front yard also came to define the suburb.

The 1954 ranch house on a quiet street with no sidewalks was relatively unassuming: the home was just over 1,200 square feet, had a one car garage, three bedrooms, and a decent-sized yard. The self-contained subdivision was near a grocery store and some strip malls and was a ten minute car ride from the suburb’s downtown.


When my parents went to sell the home in 1988, a discovery was made: the front yard had radioactive material from a local plant. A Chicago company produced lanterns and opened a facility in West Chicago in 1932. The radioactive waste material from the plant, thorium, was then offered to the community as fill. The city and residents took the fill and used it all over the suburb. The plant was later acquired by Kerr-McGee and when the radioactive thorium was discovered throughout the community (after years of struggle), a good portion of the community became the Kerr-McGee Superfund site and the last of the contaminated soil was removed in 2015.

This front yard revelation had implications for selling the home: no one would want it. Supposedly, the radioactivity in the front yard was enough to equal that of an x-ray if someone sat between the two trees in the front for 24 hours. Eventually, Kerr-McGee purchased the home and years later, many yards on that street were torn up to remove the radioactive material.

It is hard to know if the radioactivity had any effects on those of us who lived in the house. Nothing obvious has emerged yet. We may have emerged unscathed. It was not Love Canal. Perhaps this could be considered an odd footnote in a suburban upbringing. Yet, at the same time, few suburbanites would expect to find they had purchased radioactive land. Furthermore, few Americans have a personal connection to a decades-long and costly fight to clean up and remove (this cost an estimated $1.2 billion alone) radioactive thorium.

Thorium contaminated soil out of West Chicago; still groundwater

Earlier this week, the last thorium contaminated soil was shipped out of West Chicago:

After more than 30 years and $1.2 billion worth of cleanup work, the final rail cars filled with contaminated materials from the former Kerr-McGee factory site in West Chicago have been shipped out of town.

Mayor Ruben Pineda said the occasion is cause for celebration. On Tuesday, he gathered with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, Weston Solutions, DuPage County and other organizations that have helped with removing thousands of pounds of thorium waste produced by the factory. They watched the rail cars head to Utah, where the materials will be buried in the desert.

However, this is not the end of the thorium saga:

Although the soil is gone, city officials said they are waiting for the federal government to provide about $32 million to resolve issues with the contaminated groundwater at the site.

“We still have a lot of work to do out there,” Pineda said. “If we were to get (the $32 million), we could finish the project relatively quickly and (the factory site) would turn into a beautiful park.”

Both parts of this process – removing the soil and finding the funds to completely finish the job (see earlier posts on the long search for funds) – have been lengthy.

With an end in sight, I wonder how long it will take for the idea that thorium is part of West Chicago’s character to dissipate. This has been an ongoing issue for over four decades and this industrial, working-class suburb has often attracted certain attention because of the radioactive material. But, once the thorium is gone for good, those who lived in the community will move away or pass on and newer generations have little or no understanding or experience with this part of the community’s past. Will the community want to remember how it came together to get the thorium out or would it be better to just forget the whole episode and its negative connotations?

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.