Uranium Leak Found Under
West Chicago Homes
By Jake Griffin
Daily Herald Staff Writer

Cleanup crews discovered uranium leaking in a pipe under two Brown Street houses, marking the first discovery of that radioactive substance contaminating a West Chicago home.
The houses in the 200 block of west Brown Street have been placed on jacks so workers can remove radioactive soil beneath the structures. It is the first time homes had to be moved in the nearly decade-long cleanup of the shuttered Kerr-McGee chemical factory. The move has displaced one longtime resident; one house was unoccupied.
"The homes are closely adjacent to the old factory site, and the uranium was transmitted through an extremely old clay pipe," said Rich Allen, manager of the office of environmental safety in the state's Department of Nuclear Safety. "(The pipe) is so old it's not on the easement maps, and nobody from the 20th century seems to remember it."
Until now, uranium pollution had been contained to the old gas light mantle factory at Ann and Factory streets. The government-ordered cleanup has included 661 sites contaminated with thorium.
The leak took Kerr-McGee officials, charged with ridding the city of radioactive material, by surprise.
"It's not possible to predict what will be found during investigations like this, and follow-up investigations will continue," said Debbie Schramm, a company spokeswoman.
Both city and Kerr-McGee officials believe the uranium leak is an isolated incident, but have admitted there's no way to really know for sure until all the cleaning is completed.
"I don't think this is a setback," said Mayor Michael Fortner. "It just shows we have to watch things carefully."
Workers who have been cleaning the city of radioactive material for nearly a decade have experience handling uranium. However, the recent discovery still doesn't sit well with neighbors.
"This has been going on for so long that I really don't believe what I hear anymore and nothing shocks me," said Juanita Welch, who lives across the street from the contaminated homes. "We literally have no control over anything."
Welch has lived in her home since 1970, when the factory was still in operation. She has had her yard ripped away and cleansed of the thorium that contaminated 661 properties in the city.
"Directly in back of my house we had three or four ponds that were chemical ponds and they were filled with dead animals like groundhogs and squirrels," she said.
Bonnie Zahn had to move out of her home at 249 Brown St. while the uranium contamination was removed. She has told city officials she plans to move back into her house once the uranium cleaning is finished.
The city learned of the uranium leak last month and residents were informed in meetings with city officials.
"These people are unhappy and this is the seventh year of cleanup at which they're the epicenter," said city council member Christine Baxter, whose ward the contaminated homes lie in. "It feels never-ending to people who have had years of trucks rumbling down their block. The uranium thing is insult to injury."
Uranium is commonly associated with the bomb that leveled Hiroshima, Japan, in World War II so it carries a grim image, Allen acknowledged. But it is actually less harmful than thorium, state nuclear safety officials said. Both thorium and uranium are radioactive elements that were used at the factory to make chemical combinations. Thorium was used for lighting and in X-ray machines.
Allen said there was no way to know how long the uranium had been seeping through the ancient pipe.
"We know where it is and it is all underground," he said. "The company knows how to relocate uranium. The contamination at the factory site has been known for quite some time and it's been contained."
Joe Karaganis, the city's lawyer who is handling Kerr-McGee matters, believes the new findings won't hinder the last phase of cleanup in the city and along Kress Creek, expected to begin soon.
"It's a unique situation," he said. "It's not a big issue in terms of the overall cleanup."
Welch said she never thought of leaving her home and doesn't plan to because of the current situation. But she has seen a change in the neighborhood.
"You don't see any natural animals so to speak and our children can't play in the yards or the streets because of the dust and trucks and chemicals," she said. "It's a terrible thing to watch, it's like a reduction of life."


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