Developers in the Streeterville area are learning how the past use of a property can affect today’s new developments due to lingering environmental issues. In this case, the environmental issue comes in the form of radioactive thorium. Prolonged exposure to thorium can increase the risk of lung, pancreatic and bone cancer.
In the early 1900’s, Lindsay Light Co. manufactured lantern wicks for gas lanterns, coating them with a thorium-based solution. Their original plant was located at 22 W. Hubbard St, and they later expanded to 316 E. Illinois St. and 161 E. Grand Ave. The company gave away the sandy by-product of the thorium ore to be used around Streeterville as free landfill material.
In the 1930’s, Lindsay Light Co. moved out to West Chicago, and the past use of the properties was forgotten for decades. In the 1990’s, however, the EPA traced the company’s origins from West Chicago back to Streeterville after investigating radioactive contamination at the West Chicago facility and surrounding areas. EPA now requires special permits and radiation consultants for developers working in Streeterville and the Near East Side. All excavated dirt for new buildings, sewer repairs, or other street maintenance must be analyzed with a gamma ray detector. If any of the dirt exceeds the EPA’s thorium limit, the soil is removed to a special radioactive waste landfill. Developers of the Loews Hotel and various residential projects in the area have learned that this special protection means construction can take longer than expected – and cost more money too. In the past decade, more than 50,000 cubic yards of thorium-contaminated soil have been excavated and shipped to a Utah landfill which is licensed to accept radioactive waste.
Developers in the area just got good news from the U.S. Department of Justice, who negotiated a legal settlement with Lindsay Light Co’s successor for a total of $5.1 billion for the continued cleanup of various thorium-contaminated properties across the United States. Streeterville/Near East Side will receive $121 million for their continued cleanup efforts, and West Chicago will receive an additional $9 million. To date, West Chicago has spent nearly $750 million cleaning up its radioactive contamination, with much of that funding also coming from earlier legal settlements with Kerr-McGee (Lindsay Light Co’s successor).
“We’re only halfway through the redevelopment of the neighborhood,” said Gail Spreen, the head of the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents. “They’ll likely find more thorium along the way.”
In addition to the thorium contamination, properties in the Streeterville area may also have contamination from other past industrial use. The area was once heavily industrialized and a busy seaport. Developers working in the area are learning the importance of doing their full environmental due diligence, including a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment completed by highly qualified Environmental Professionals and following the ASTM E1527-13 standard. By knowing the site’s history and potential environmental risk prior to purchasing the property, developers can negotiate a better deal for the property and/or require clean up prior to taking title. They will also be able to factor in the additional time and expense to deal with the contaminated soil.
Caveat emptor: let the buyer beware…especially in Streeterville.
Source: Chicago Tribune, “Just off Mag Mile sits city’s toxic past.” 4/17/14.