Land Set to Become Base Camp Safe for Migrants After Removal of Polluted Soil, Addition of Stone Barrier, City Says

Work is underway at a base camp for migrants in Brighton Park on Dec. 1, 2023. (WTTW News)Work is underway at a base camp for migrants in Brighton Park on Dec. 1, 2023. (WTTW News)

Mayor Brandon Johnson said late Friday the site at 38th Street and California Avenue set to become a so-called “winterized base camp” for migrants is safe to use as a temporary shelter as long as contaminated soil is removed and a stone barrier of at least six inches covers the entire nine-acre site.

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The mayor’s office released the 800-page report compiled by Terracon Consultants late Friday in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by WTTW News. Johnson had promised to release the report no later than Friday.

Construction began earlier this week in Brighton Park on the massive tents that will house at least some of the more than 1,000 migrants living in police stations across the city and at O’Hare Airport. The release of the report could pave the way for the group of migrants to move into the camp set to be run by state officials in the coming days.

However, before that happens, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency officials need to review the report, said Jordan Abudayyeh, a spokesperson for Gov. J.B. Pritzker, declining to comment on the report state officials received at the same time as the news media.

Read the full report.

Once the base camp opens, it will be over the objections of Ald. Julia Ramirez (12th Ward), who said earlier this week that the shelter poses a “serious health risk” to residents.

“It is essential for residents of this community to be fully aware of the environmental impacts and potential risks associated with this project,” Ramirez wrote to residents Nov. 25. “We have a right to know if the site is safe for both asylum seekers and community members at large.”

Ramirez did not immediately respond to a request for comment from WTTW News late Friday.

Tests were performed in 16 locations on the site, and soil, groundwater and soil gas samples were taken and analyzed, according to the report.

Mercury was located in one location on the site, and the soil in that area was removed and disposed of, according to the report. 

In another location, the organic compound bis(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate was found, the report said. That compound is used in the manufacturing of polyvinyl chloride, a rigid yet flexible plastic. That soil will also be removed and disposed of, according to the report.

At multiple locations on the site, the tests found evidence of two semi-volatile organic compounds and four metals that exceeded limits considered safe for residential use, according to the report.

That prompted city officials to require that the entire site “be covered with imported clean stone from a quarry and compaction of the stone to a minimum thickness of six inches throughout the site. The stone layer will be periodically inspected and maintained,” the report said.

The city will pay the owners of the lot at 38th Street and California Avenue $91,400 per month to lease the land, under the terms of an agreement reached in October.

The base camp will have separate tents for sleeping, case management services, dining, showers and bathroom facilities. The Brighton Park base camp will open to house 500 people and expand to as many as 2,000 people, officials said. A second base camp for migrants is expected to be built at 115th and Halsted streets, officials said.

Deputy Mayor for Immigrant, Migrant and Refugee Rights Beatriz Ponce de León has said the base camps are a last resort to care for the migrants.

Johnson has blamed the crisis facing Chicago on “right-wing extremists bent on sowing chaos and division in our city.”

Once the new shelter is up and running, most of those who move in will be allowed to stay for no more than 60 days, under new rules announced by Johnson.

The plan to build a winterized base camp at 38th and California drew immediate and intense pushback as soon as city officials began considering the site in mid-October. At a protest of the base camp proposal, held Oct. 19, Ramirez and her aide were attacked, sending him to the hospital.

The crowd at the community meeting held five days after Ramirez was attacked appeared to be starkly divided along racial lines, with many of the most vehement and emotional pleas to scrap the plan coming from Asian Chicagoans. Some Asian Chicagoans briefly chanted “send them back” as officials spoke about the plan.

By contrast, many of those who spoke in Spanish or English said they were heartbroken that the city had no better option for the migrants than tents, which they said they feared would not keep out the cold winter weather. Others demanded more city funds to help all unhoused Chicagoans. 

GardaWorld Federal Services will operate the base camps under a contract with state officials.

Many progressive allies of Johnson were furious that the city would do business with GardaWorld, which contracted with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to move migrants to states led by Democrats, according to the Tampa Bay Times. That contract was never executed, firm officials told WTTW News.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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