Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Superfund to Super Fun

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Superfund to Super Fun

Article excerpt

It's difficult to imagine a more perfect setting for a new aquatic center than the Reed Keppler Park in West Chicago, Illinois. Surrounded by mature oaks, marsh lands and expanses of Midwest prairie, its low-slung buildings and newer elements of aquatic design blend perfectly with the 104-acre site. Touring the facility on a breezy fall day with Park District Director Dave Thomas, his pride in the newly opened project was palpable. "This was a sorely needed project in our community," he says, describing a rapidly farm land, blue collar workers and upscale luxury homes. An original pool on the site was built in 1957 and operated by the West Chicago Swimming Pool Association until 1973 when the Park District took over its operation on land leased from the city.

The Aquatic Center "Dream"

By 1975, Thomas, then superintendent of parks, was deeply concerned about pool conditions, particularly the potentially hazardous location of an electrical system unprotected from filter or pool water backups. In 1979 the pool was closed, pending a referendum for necessary repair costs. The city, afraid the pool would have to remain closed indefinitely if the referendum failed, spent approximately $20,000 on repairs and took over the pool's operation for the next 10 years.

By 1988, city audits revealed losses of $20,000 to $30,000 per year on the pool's operation and decided it was time to turn the pool back over the park district. After touring the facility, which he knew well from his days as park superintendent, Thomas noted that electrical systems were still improperly located, and that the entire design of the pool remained a major problem. In spite of new filters, plumbing systems and some cosmetic changes, it remained a 30-year-old pool too obsolete in systems and design to salvage. Dave Thomas began to envision a new "water park" facility for the community. But his vision was soon interrupted by the existence of radioactive materials within Reed Keppler Park.

Radioactive Materials Defined

As early as 1977, the incidence of low-level radioactive materials in the park had been an issue. The material, thorium, originated from wastes from a West Chicago thorium processing facility. In 1931, the company began extracting the chemical for use in gas mantles, and subsequently supplied both thorium and rare earths to the U.S. government for the Manhattan Project. What appeared to be sand and gravel were actually ore extractions from the company's chemical processing, some containing low-level radioactive properties. The plant closed in 1973. In 1976, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was informed that thorium residues may have been deposited in the undeveloped park site which was originally a town dump. 1983 studies by the EPA, Argonne National Laboratories (IL) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, concluded that while thorium was present at Reed Keppler Park, it was basically contained at a former dump site which was now surrounded by trees, fenced off and no longer accessible to the public.

Park Labeled a "Superfund" Site

In 1986, while installing a water line to a softball complex in the park, the district found thorium-bearing materials close to, but outside the confines of, the original dump site. "We had a problem," Thomas says, "And it was bigger than what we had originally thought." Since the original processing facility entered into a "Consent Decree" with the city in 1985 to clean up the identified thorium deposits, they offered to remove the materials found along the water line excavation.

NRC refused to allow the removal, stating that the radioactive materials would have to remain in place until guidelines could be developed for their removal. In addition, the extent of thorium deposits within the park would have to be investigated. By 1990, the entire park was placed on the National Priorities List of sites that were awaiting clean up under the Superfund program, along with three other sites within the community. …

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