The Environmental Protection Agency announced this week that it has begun excavating soil contaminated with lead and arsenic from the Hegewisch Little League field.
The cleanup at the site, located at 127th Street and Carondolet Avenue, is expected to last through the end of July and cost up to $691,295, according to the agency.
In a funding application submitted in March, the agency termed the remediation “time-critical,” and stated that the uncontrolled hazardous substances in the soil posed an “imminent and substantial endangerment” to “public health, welfare, and the environment.”
“The lead and arsenic in soil is unsecured and has no containment. Lead and arsenic have the potential to be released from this property by means such as tracking, surface runoff, and wind dispersion,” the memo states.
The EPA tested the soil in September 2019, initially prompted by high levels of manganese emissions detected by air quality monitors positioned at nearby Watco Terminal and Port Services (Watco), which stores and handles bulk solid materials, including manganese-bearing alloys. U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth requested the soil test on constituents’ behalf.
Though none of the soil samples collected from properties near the Watco facility showed harmful levels of manganese, the results from the Hegewisch Little League field were alarming, exceeding limits for lead and arsenic, specifically in samples collected from what would be the diamond’s right field and right-center field.
The highest observed result for lead was 686 parts per million, well above the “removal management level” of 400 parts per million. For arsenic, the highest level was 169 parts per million, with 68 parts per million being the threshold for removal, according to the report.
“This Little League field wasn’t even on the EPA’s radar,” said Gina Ramirez, a lifelong resident and community environmental activist. “I think this would have flown under the radar if we hadn’t been persistent.”
Hegewisch Little League has owned and operated the baseball field since 1963. The EPA determined the contamination was not related to Watco but rather was likely from historical fill material below the field, according to agency documents.
The field is located near the newly designated Schroud Superfund site, where the former Republic Steel stored and dumped slag material between 1951 and 1977.
“We need to unlock the hidden secrets in the soil,” said Ramirez.
She says it's time for city, state and federal agencies to take a more proactive, comprehensive approach to dealing with the accumulation of environmental hazards on the Southeast Side, rather than approach every instance of pollution or contamination as a one-off.
And they also need to keep other potential polluters from setting up business in the area, which is already overburdened with industrial use, said Ramirez.
“It's just too much. How are we ever going to get ahead? We don't even have time to address the legacy pollution,” Ramirez said. “What good is it to remediate soil and then bring in more polluters? It's pointless — it's just going to happen again. We need to break this cycle.”
Once the contaminated soil is removed, the EPA will backfill the excavated area with clean material and topsoil, and landscape the site.