Pritzker Pulls State Funding From Migrant Base Camp in Brighton Park, Citing Environmental Concerns

Video: The WTTW News Spotlight Politics team on the Brighton Park camp and more of the day’s top stories. (Produced by Paul Caine)

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Tuesday “serious environmental concerns are still present” on the site at 38th Street and California Avenue that Chicago officials planned to transform into a so-called “winterized base camp” for migrants and the nine-acre property is not suitable for residential use.

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Pritzker’s announcement comes nearly a week after construction started on the Brighton Park camp, and days after Mayor Brandon Johnson said the site was safe to use as a temporary shelter as long as contaminated soil is removed and a stone barrier of at least six inches covered the entire property.

“We will not proceed with housing families on a site where serious environmental concerns are still present,” Pritzker said in a statement.

Johnson told reporters that “the mission is very much alive” to move the migrants from police stations and the city’s airports to more dignified living conditions.

Johnson said it was not a surprise to discover “toxicity” on the site, which had been home to industrial operations for decades, but indicated he was caught off guard by the decision by the state to pull the plug on construction that started while the environmental assessments were still ongoing.

“As they continued to build out on this site, there was no indication throughout this entire process that a standard or a different methodology was preferable by the state of Illinois,” Johnson said, adding that there was nothing “that would have led us to believe that this particular report that has been validated to be safe by third parties, that somehow that operation will be halted.”

However, Jordan Abudayyeh, a spokesperson for Pritzker, told WTTW News that the city chose not to follow the standards set by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and was “unable to explain the lesser standards the did choose to use and how they arrived at those standards.”

“While the city might be comfortable placing asylum seekers on a site where toxins are present without a full understanding of whether it is safe, the state is not,” Abudayyeh said.

The city has agreed to pay $29 million to GardaWorld Federal Services to erect massive tents to house the migrants and care for them, under a contract that was originally inked by state officials.

In his remarks that came after an unrelated event, Johnson repeatedly emphasized that the state approved the original contract with GardaWorld, which was used to start construction on the now-scrapped base camp.

The mayor also bristled at repeated questions about whether he had a Plan B ready to be implemented after the state’s decision to withdraw funding for the proposed Brighton Park base camp.

“I’ve been planning for Plan B, C, and D, and E and F, from the very moment that I became the mayor of the city of Chicago.” Johnson said. “And so whether it’s 115th and Austin, or 38th and California, or any other brick-and-mortar location that we’ve identified, that can serve the purpose of this mission, know that my administration is planning ahead.”

A second base camp for migrants is expected to be built at 115th and Halsted streets, but that plan has not been finalized.

During a news conference on Nov. 28, Johnson did not directly answer a question from WTTW News about why he decided to start construction on the base camp before the environmental assessment had been released publicly.

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, the mayor’s office said the state made the decision to start construction “simultaneous with the performance of the environmental assessment and remediation work previously contracted by the city.”

Abudayyeh said GardaWorld made the decision to begin construction before the state signed off on the environmental assessment. It is unclear how much that work cost. or who will ultimately pay those bills.

“They knew there was some liability there and that it was possible we wouldn’t use the site,” Abudayyeh said, referring to GardaWorld. “But it was better to be ready rather than waste another week plus just waiting.”

Abudayyeh said the state had not spent any money to build the base camp as of Tuesday. State officials have earmarked $65 million cover the cost of one base camp in Chicago and open another shelter at a vacant CVS drugstore in Little Village.

Officials with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency declined to certify that the nine acres near 38th and California was safe to be used as a shelter, saying efforts to test the site’s soil and remove contaminated soil were “insufficient.”

“The well-being of residents and workers at the site is our highest priority, and current and planned site conditions do not adequately reduce risks of human exposure to known and potential environmental conditions,” Illinois EPA Director John J. Kim said.

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)

Johnson’s office this fall chose the Brighton Park lot as a place to provide shelter for 2,000 migrants, all of whom are in the country legally after requesting asylum. In all, more than 24,000 migrants made their way to Chicago on buses paid for by Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Most crossed the southern border after fleeing economic collapse and political instability in Venezuela.

The humanitarian crisis engulfing the city in the wake of the arrival of the migrants has strained the city’s social safety net, pinched the city's finances and exacerbated tension between Chicago’s Black and Latino communities. It has also soured relations between Johnson and Pritzker, complicating efforts to address a wide range of state and city issues.

There are approximately 450 people living at police stations across the city and another 150 at O’Hare International Airport, according to city data released Tuesday that represented the lowest numbers since Johnson took office.

Another 13,500 migrants are living in city shelters, an all-time high. 

The decision by state officials to permanently stop construction of the base camp represents a significant rebuke to Johnson, who like Pritzker, is a Democrat. Johnson assured Chicago residents the site was safe to use as a shelter in a statement released late Friday. 

It is not clear how much money was spent to conduct the environmental assessment of the site or how much was spent to partially construct the base camp. It is also unclear whether city officials would attempt to move forward with plans for the base camp without the blessing of state environmental officials.

Tests were performed in 16 locations on the site, and soil, groundwater and soil gas samples were taken and analyzed, according to the environmental assessment released by the city.

According to the governor’s office, that was not sufficient “to provide a comprehensive assessment of environmental conditions across the site” and additional tests are needed.

“The remediations implemented thus far do not satisfy (Illinois Environmental Protection Agency) standards and are insufficient,” according to the governor’s office. “At a minimum, an expanded engineered barrier between contaminated soil and human exposure would need to be installed to address exposure concerns. Further investigation might also identify additional contamination that would require additional remediation.” 

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

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 has yet to be removed and disposed of, according to a statement from the mayor’s office.

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 city officials said was conducted based on standards set by state environmental officials.

Read the full report.

The city had been set to pay the owners of the lot $91,400 per month to lease the land, under the terms of an agreement reached in October. That agreement could be canceled if the site is not used as a migrant shelter.

Ronnie Reese, a spokesperson for Johnson, said city officials are still deciding the future of the site at 38th and California.

In late September, Pritzker criticized Johnson’s plan for the tents, telling reporters it would be better to house the migrants in unused federal buildings. By mid-November, with cold weather settling over the city, Pritzker agreed to use $65 million to help care for the migrants in one base camp, saying there was no other option to prevent them from freezing to death on Chicago's streets.

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th Ward) said he was grateful to Pritzker for stopping the construction of the base camp and “intervening to make sure we put the health and safety of people first.” Vasquez also opposed Johnson's plans for the base camps.

Ald. Julia Ramirez (12th Ward), who repeatedly and publicly objected to plans to use the site as a migrant shelter, said she was glad the governor stepped up “to the responsibility of caring for the health of immigrant families and residents.”

“There is a lot of work ahead as winter is among us, and we have to continue finding shelter that is safe for asylum seekers,” Ramirez said.

Former Ald. George Cardenas (12th Ward) called the city’s insistence on erecting a camp at the site “baffling.” Cardenas is now a member of the Cook County Board of Review and is running for reelection as the Democratic committeeperson for the 12th Ward. Ramirez, who defeated Cardenas’ hand-picked successor, is supporting state Rep. Theresa Mah in that contest.

“The site, formerly part of a railyard and used as a zinc smelter, has a history of industrial use dating back nearly a century,” Cardenas said. “This legacy raises serious questions about the suitability of this location for residential purposes. In addition, erecting this migrant camp would be a slap in the face of a community already beset by environmental injustices.”

While the city is charged with managing shelters, Illinois can make the calls on the base camp’s future because it is providing the funding.

State officials said they would expedite efforts to open a 200-bed shelter at a vacant CVS drugstore in Little Village and “work with the Archdiocese of Chicago to explore additional options for brick-and-mortar shelter sites.”

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