Polluted sites in Joliet region being targeted for cleanup, reuse

Kristin Erickson, economic development project manager for Will County Center For Economic Development, speaks at a community outreach meeting regarding brownfields on Tuesday, Nov. 14, at the Joliet Public Library's Ottawa Street branch.

Will County — A Will County nonprofit began its first efforts on Tuesday to gather input from residents on what potentially contaminated or polluted areas in the region could be cleaned up, reused and redeveloped.

Those areas are called brownfields by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The federal agency awarded a $400,000 grant to the Will County Center For Economic Development to identify and assess those sites.

Will County CED held community outreach meetings on Tuesday in Lockport and Joliet where they discussed brownfields and outlined their plans regarding them. The nonprofit has a website called willcountybrownfields.com that has further information about the project.

The process will involve community outreach to identify brownfield sites, followed by an environmental assessment of those sites and then the creation of plans for cleanup and reuse.

A brownfield could be a junk yard, a former gas station or an abandoned property that may be contaminated by hazardous substances such as pesticides, metals and asbestos. The EPA funding will not be used for a potentially contaminated site where there is an entity that is responsible for cleanup.

“If we know there’s a company operation that probably have contributed to the contamination ... then it is their responsibility to assess and cleanup. It’s not the taxpayer’s money,” said Linda Yang, senior principal for Terracon.

Terracon, an environmental consulting and engineering firm, is one of the many partners working with Will County CED to identify and assess brownfields. Other partners include Will County government, Joliet, Lockport, Rockdale, the EPA and residents.

Lance Thies, Lockport Community and Economic Development director, described Lockport’s identified site as “an illegal dumping ground,” which is located along Canal Street.

“It’s a very common mentality to not want to touch sites it they are perceived to have environmental problems, because developers don’t have the budget to deal with it. In reality though, some are not that bad when you look at them,”

—  Linda Yang, senior principal for Terracon.

“They asked us for input if we knew of any sites while they were putting the grant together about a year, year and a half ago,” Thies said.

“The site is owned by an entity who never got approval, but started dumping there anyway, and it’s never stopped,” Thies explained. “It’s been going on for decades. There are semi-truck trailers and containers out there that people just pulled off the road and left.”

Linda Yang, senior principal for Terracon, speaks at a community outreach meeting regarding brownfields on Tuesday, Nov. 14, at the Joliet Public Library's Ottawa Street branch.

While Thies said the city doubts there are materials like mercury or lead present, he said the number of abandoned vehicles could mean the presence of spilled oil, gas and antifreeze.

The property was previously unincorporated but was annexed by Lockport earlier this year.

“It gives us some level of enforcement authority,” Thies said. “We’ve been working on getting it cleaned up, but it won’t happen overnight.”

Community help needed

In addition to the three earmarked locations, Will County CED is looking for input from the community for other sites which might qualify as brownfields, which could have grant money allocated to their evaluation.

Recommended sites will be listed and prioritized and Terracon will evaluate if it is eligible for EPA funding then assess the problems at the site in phases by talking to stakeholders, reviewing records, taking soil samples, and testing for underground storage tanks and vapors.

“It’s a very common mentality to not want to touch sites it they are perceived to have environmental problems, because developers don’t have the budget to deal with it. In reality though, some are not that bad when you look at them,” Yang said.

The evaluation process would determine what needs to be done at each evaluated site and begin creating plans for remediation to make the properties usable.

Once plans are in place, the county can apply for further grant funding to support the clean-up efforts.

“It’s a dynamic process,” said CED Economic Development Project Manager Kristin Erickson. “We’re just beginning the work with this community outreach.”

The grant lasts for three years, during which time more sites can be identified and evaluated.

According to Yang, the largest portion of the costs goes to creating remediation plans for eligible sites, so it is not known yet how many sites may be addressed in the grant window.

While the CED will accept site recommendations on an ongoing basis, Thies encouraged residents to make recommendations for sites they already know about in the next month to ensure high-need areas are looked at.

Display panels with information about the Will County Center For Economic Development's outreach efforts regarding brownfields seen on Tuesday, Nov. 14, at the Joliet Public Library's Ottawa Street branch.