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The lingering horror of thorium radioactive poisoning in West Chicago

On the one hand, the story of West Chicago and thorium is one of triumph: a small town overcomes the odds and makes a big corporation clean up its radioactive waste. On the other hand, thorium still haunts some residents, especially those living with illness or deaths in the family that they suspect are related.

Are West Chicago’s Radiation Worries Over?, BELT Magazine, By Liuan Huska, 13 July 22,

Sandra Arzola was relaxing in her West Chicago home one weekend in 1995, when she heard a knock at the door. Recently married, she shared the gray duplex with her husband, mom and sister, and family members were constantly coming and going. But when Sandra answered the door that day, what she learned would change how she looked at her home and suburban community forever.

At the door was a woman representing Envirocon, an environmental cleanup company. There was thorium on the family’s property, the woman said, and if it was OK with them, workers were coming to remove it. It was the first time Sandra had heard of thorium “It took me by left field,” she said. “But [the representative] made it sound like everything was going to be fine.”

Unknowingly, the Arzolas had bought their way into what the Chicago Tribune in 1979 called “the radioactive capital of the Midwest.” Not long after they purchased the property, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated it a Superfund site because of the hazardous waste in their yard.

The source of the danger was the old factory one block to the north of the Arzola home, which Jesse Arzola frequently went past while walking their dogs. From 1932 to 1973, the factory was the largest producer of rare earth and radioactive thorium compounds in the world. It started out producing lamps and later supplied thorium for the federal government’s atomic bomb development. But perhaps the factory’s most lasting legacy, at least in West Chicago, is the harmful radioactive waste that was dumped in ponds, piled at the factory and buried around homes and sidewalks across town.

Residents raised health concerns as early as the 1940s about the toxic material, but these were regularly dismissed by the factory, last owned by the Kerr-McGee Chemical Corporation. Comprehensive environmental protection rules weren’t put in place until the early 1970s, leaving the factory largely free to dispose of its nuclear waste for decades.

It has taken just as long for the company and government to clean up the radioactive waste. As of 2015, the radioactive sites under federal jurisdiction near the factory have been cleaned to EPA standards. There are no remaining health risks from the land, according to government officials.

But below the factory, the groundwater is still polluted with a range of toxins – particularly uranium – that exceed protection standards. The Illinois Emergency Management Agency, which has jurisdiction over the site, expects remediation to begin this fall. ……………………..

Prolonged or high levels of radiation exposure can damage genetic material in cells and cause cancer and other diseases later on, especially for children, who are more sensitive to radiation. Only two public health studies, published in the early 1990s, have been conducted in West Chicago. Both found elevated cancer rates in the 60185 zip code, which includes the neighborhood around the factory……………………………

The challenges facing West Chicago residents today began ninety years ago, when Charles R. Lindsay moved his lamp factory from Chicago to what was then an undeveloped little town with multiple rail connections. The factory, now officially known as the Rare Earths Facility, took monazite ore and used powerful acids to extract minerals to make gas lanterns, which burned thorium nitrate to emit an incandescent glow. During World War II, it also supplied thorium to the federal government to develop the atomic bombs that were later dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan.

During its four decades of operation, the Rare Earths Facility processed up to one hundred and forty-one thousand tons of monazite. The liquid waste from the extraction process was dumped into unlined ponds around the factory, seeping into the surrounding water table. Solid waste, a black, sand-like material known as thorium tailings, piled up on site. Old-timers share stories of sneaking into the factory grounds and playing on “Mount Thorium.” When the pile got too big, the waste was trucked down the road to a new pile in Reed Keppler Park.

Facing mounting piles of toxic waste, Lindsay came up with another solution: offer the waste to residents for landscaping. From the 1930s through the 1950s, radioactive thorium tailings were distributed across town, mixed with concrete to pour foundations, mixed with topsoil for gardens and spilled along roadways. The company continued to do this as the risks of radiation exposure became widely known starting in the late 1940s through its effects on Japanese atomic bomb survivors.

Soon after the factory moved to West Chicago, people started complaining. In 1941, nearby residents sued Lindsay Light for releasing airborne hydrofluoric acid that killed trees and shrubs nearby.

The federal government did not begin regulating nuclear materials until 1954. Starting in 1957 the company received repeated citations for safety violations, including failing to fence off radioactive storage areas, exposing workers to radiation levels above standards and improper waste disposal.

As the environmental movement gained steam through the 1960s, growing public pressure pushed Congress to create the Environmental Protection Agency and pass the Clean Air Act of 1970 and Clean Water Act of 1972. That resulted in sweeping new regulations – and obligations to the American public – for companies like Kerr-McGee, which had gotten used to operating with limited oversight…………………………….

The EPA denied the company’s request for an operating permit and the factory shuttered in 1973. It was cheaper to cease operations than follow the new rules. By 1980, Kerr-McGee had started the process of closing down the West Chicago facility for good. Pressure from residents and the city pushed the company to begin cleanup on 119 contaminated residential properties.

Still, Kerr-McGee had another plan that worried residents: to permanently store thirteen million cubic feet of radioactive waste at the factory site in a four-story, twenty-seven-acre, clay-covered cell. Concerned residents formed an organization, the Thorium Action Group, to fight the company’s proposal. This spawned more than a decade of legal battles between residents, the city of West Chicago, and state of Illinois — who wanted the thorium out of town — and the company and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who insisted the waste could safely be stored in this densely populated neighborhood of West Chicago…………………

Moving the thorium waste out of town would take over two decades to complete. In the meantime, there was still the problem of radioactive tailings embedded around the neighborhood…………………….

The Arzolas’ experience is far from rare. Realtors in West Chicago have operated with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, said longtime realtor and former West Chicago resident Dan Czuba. Unlike for radon or lead, realtors never received directives from the state or any licensing board to disclose other harmful thorium byproducts. People have had to do their own homework and decide whether or not a home was a risk. “To this day,” Czuba said, “I still don’t know that there was an official statement of, ‘Thorium will hurt you.’”…………………………………..

Throughout the decades, various groups have tried to get the word out about thorium. The Thorium Action Group was active through the early 2000s. Once the EPA got involved and Kerr-McGee agreed to move the waste out, the group dissipated………

The lack of easily accessible information surrounding the contamination and cleanups has left some residents with the nagging worry that there may be other hidden pockets of radiation around town……….

One house to the west and across the railroad from the Arzolas, Erika Bartlett grew up playing along the tracks and under her yard’s sprawling old oak trees. When she was diagnosed with leukemia in 2012, at age thirty-four, a friend asked if there was anything she could have been exposed to.

“Wait a minute, I actually was,” Bartlett told her friend. She thought back to her high school years, when the oak trees, swingset and above-ground pool at her house were removed during the radiation remediation. Bartlett realized she had spent her childhood, starting from age four, in a neighborhood embedded with nuclear waste. She wondered how many others living near the factory had similar health problems. That started her on a yearslong personal investigation into the town’s thorium legacy.

Between 2012 and 2016, as Bartlett was undergoing cancer treatment, she knocked on doors in the neighborhoods around the factory, an area covering about one square mile. She found over 200 cases of cancers and other illnesses that could stem from radiation exposure, including birth defects, Hashimoto’s and aplastic anemia, the illness that killed the pioneering radioactivity researcher Marie Curie in 1934.

“When I first started, I didn’t think I’d find anything,” Bartlett said. “But block after block, it seemed like a bigger deal than I thought.”

The EPA estimated that, before the waste was removed, radiation levels in some residential neighborhoods in West Chicago increased lifetime cancer risks up to seventy times what is acceptable……

The only official health studies into the impacts on people living near the factory were conducted over three decades ago, by the Illinois Department of Public Health. Among residents in the 60185 zip code, studies in 1990 and 1991 found elevated rates of cancer, including melanomas and lung, colorectal and breast cancers. By grouping exposed and unexposed people together, however, researchers said more differences may have been masked……………………………………….

On the one hand, the story of West Chicago and thorium is one of triumph: a small town overcomes the odds and makes a big corporation clean up its radioactive waste. On the other hand, thorium still haunts some residents, especially those living with illness or deaths in the family that they suspect are related…………………  https://beltmag.com/are-west-chicagos-radiation-worries-over/

July 18, 2022 - Posted by | environment, radiation, Reference, thorium, USA

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