The EPA ovesaw the cleanup of the Celotex site and residential properties near it between 2002 and 2009. In 2009 the City of Chicago signed an agreement with U.S. EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice agreeing to enhance the cleanup and develop the Celotex site as a public park using certain sustainable development practices. The agreement gave the city protection from potential liability for the contamination at the property. This paved the way for the sale of the site to the city of Chicago. The Chicago Park District acquired the site in 2012 to turn it into the recreational and green space that the community had envisioned for many years. The dream became a reality in 2014 with the opening of La Villita Park.
The Celotex site was used for making, storing and selling asphalt roofing products. In 1989, Illinois EPA received citizen complaints about coal tar present on their property due to Celotex. Illinois EPA found pollution at the site.
EPA inspected the site in 1993 and informed the public of the potential health hazards. By late 1993, Celotex had removed all the buildings and visible polluted soils and material. Celotex covered the west side of the property with 2 feet of soil to even out the grade. A concrete trench had been sent off-site for grinding and then returned to the property for fill. EPA did not approve this work done by the Celotex Corp.
In mid-1994, EPA determined that no top soil had been placed over the site and there were no plants to hold the top soil layer together. EPA documented the flooding of residences on Troy Street due to heavy rains in 1995 and later met with the responsible companies to agree on a remedy that would ensure that future flooding would be prevented. EPA held several public meetings in 1995 and 1996. In August 1997, EPA informed residents that the site was re-graded and flooding would be resolved by a new sewage drainage system.
In June 1999, AlliedSignal Inc., one of the companies EPA identified as a potentially responsible party, submitted a draft engineering evaluation and cost analysis report to EPA. The draft report was revised per EPA comments. AlliedSignal Inc. acquired Honeywell Inc. in 1999 and became Honeywell International Inc., which agreed to perform the cleanup.
In 2002, Sacramento Corp. bought the Celotex property and placed at least 2 feet of gravel on about 22 acres of the main site for company use. An additional two acres (also referred to as the Palumbo property) at the site were covered with porous clay or gravel as part of a cleanup plan approved in 2004. The plan also included digging up contaminated soil located in some nearby residential yards and disposing of it at an EPA-approved landfill.
The Celotex site is located at 2800 S. Sacramento in a portion of Chicago's South Lawndale Community known as Little Village--a predominantly Latino neighborhood affected by environmental justice issues.
Soil at the main site and surface soils in some nearby residential yards were contaminated with PAHs, short for polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons. PAHs are a group of chemicals that form during burning of coal, wood, oil and gas, and garbage. PAHs attach to soil particles and last a long time in the environment. Some PAHs may cause cancer in humans.
In 1998, the companies responsible for the pollution and cleanup did a study to find out the potential health risks PAH exposure presents to people living near the main site. The study, which was approved by EPA, estimated the number of cancer cases that could happen over and above the usual number of cases expected in this part of Illinois.
EPA determined the increased risk of getting cancer from exposure to PAHs. For a worker at the main site the risk was seven excess cancer cases for every 10,000 workers. However, because of the gravel cover, and as long as the gravel cover is maintained, the risk to workers is now zero. The risk to nearby residents to exposure to the PAHs on the residential soil was 1.8 excess cancer cases for every 10,000 people. This did not meet EPA’s risk standard. EPA considered these risks to the residents as unacceptable. For that reason, the Agency required the company that agreed to conduct the cleanup for the pollution to perform remedial work on the main site and nearby homes with contaminated yards.
In December 2014 the Chicago Park District had a ribbon-cutting ceremony to announce the opening of La Villita ParkExit on the former Celotex site. During the Celotex site cleanup, U.S. EPA asked Little Village residents for input on future use. Today, the vision the community expressed throughout the cleanup has become a reality.
The City of Chicago and CPD worked closely with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and U.S. EPA on plans for the 21.42-acre park at the site. LVEJO and area residents gave input on design ideas and submitted a request to name the park “La Villita Park.”
With the insistent determination of community groups like LVEJO and other dedicated members of the Little Village community, this previously contaminated property is now a beautiful green space for the community to use.