“People are aware that there’s something strange or different in West Chicago.”
–City administrator Don Foster
Sitting on the western edge of Du Page County, buffered from suburbia by forest preserves and native prairie, West Chicago is one of the last of a dying breed: an actual small town surviving in the midst of faceless megalopolitan sprawl.
While surrounding suburbs may feature bulldozed landscapes dotted with puny saplings and ornamentals, West Chicago’s hilly terrain boasts tall, sturdy trees older than its oldest residents. Its main street is Main Street, proudly decorated with flags and yellow ribbons on every lamppost.
However . . .
West Chicago also can claim higher-than-normal cancer rates, a giant mound of radioactive materials in the middle of town, and the only four Superfund hazardous waste sites in Illinois where radiation is the prime contaminant. But true to the city’s unique nature, they’re some of the prettiest hazardous waste sites you’ll ever see.
Even the infamous mound–“Mount Thorium” it’s sometimes called–looks benign, save for the barbed wire fence and the Caution Radioactive Materials signs that decorate it.
The mound was started in the 30s and has kept growing. Today it measures approximately 500,000 cubic yards of thorium and uranium “mill tailings,” sludge, contaminated soil, and building debris. But its most impressive feature is a radioactive half-life of 14 billion years. It will be radioactive approximately forever.
The mill tailings, which are the mound’s most hazardous component, look like black sand. During the 30s and 40s, builders, landscapers, and home owners used the tailings to fill low spots in yards. As a result, radioactive materials were spread throughout the community and beyond.
Until the mound was coated with soil and asphalt in the mid-80s, radioactive dust blew in the wind or was washed by the rain into nearby Kress Creek. Everyone agreed that the new cover would not stand up to eternity and that something had to be done. The mound’s owner, the Kerr-McGee Corporation, wanted to bulldoze it into a tighter, higher heap and enclose it in a four-story, 27-acre clay tomb. The estimated cost of the project: $25 million. The state, the city, and its residents wanted to tear it down and ship it out. Estimated cost: more than $120 million.
This difference of opinion resulted in a 12-year legal battle. In the last year and a half, things really heated up. On February 23, 1990, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted Kerr-McGee a license to build its “permanent on-site disposal facility.” On March 1, 1991, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Appeal Board voided the license. On May 14, Kerr-McGee finally agreed to move the mound out of town.
After years on the defensive, the city and state had seized an opening and gone for the corporate jugular. Their strategy: make keeping the material in West Chicago a more expensive proposition than shipping it out. And in the end, it was an act of legislative extortion that won the day.
The area’s legislative delegation, Representative Don Hensel and Senator Doris Karpiel, along with Scott Palmer, the chief of staff for U.S. Representative Dennis Hastert, made an offer Kerr-McGee couldn’t refuse. They drew up a bill in the General Assembly that would have charged Kerr-McGee a $10 a cubic foot storage fee for its waste materials. They estimated that there were 13 million cubic feet of radioactive garbage in and around West Chicago.
Faced with a potential annual bill of $130 million, Kerr-McGee finally decided to sit down at the negotiating table. The outcome on May 14 was a five-point “agreement in principle.” The corporation agreed that West Chicago was no longer to be considered a permanent disposal site; it agreed to search for an alternative site and to put up good-faith money as a guarantee that the search will be a serious one; it agreed that acceptable sites exist; it agreed that off-site conditions will be addressed as well. All parties agreed to dissolve pending litigation dividing them.
“We didn’t believe it,” said Rich Kassanits, cofounder of the Thorium Action Group (TAG), the citizens group created last year to fight Kerr-McGee. “But once we understood it was money-motivated, we believed it. Because that’s Kerr-McGee’s motivation–money. Unless we could understand how this was good for them, we were skeptical.”
“Kerr-McGee still couldn’t care diddley squat about West Chicago,” said someone at TAG’s bimonthly meeting on May 16. “It’s still just dollars and cents to them. They’re not doing this because they love your children.”
Kassanits explained the mixed emotions TAG members were feeling.
“Maybe we’re holding off on celebrating and being jubilant because there’s not a single ounce of it that’s moved out of town,” Kassanits said. “I think everyone is still looking for the final goal of being able to live without this kind of danger.”
Thorium is number 90 on the periodic table of elements; its atomic weight is 232. It was discovered in the late 1820s by a Swedish chemist named Jons Jakob Berzelius, who named it after the Norse god of thunder.
Thorium is about three times more common than uranium. Although it was first located in Norway, the main commercial source of the element is radioactive monazite sand found in India, Brazil, and South Africa. The earliest commercial use of thorium was in the production of Welsbach mantles–those little cloth bags that burn so brightly in gas lanterns. The source of that brilliant light is a thorium oxide coating on the fabric.
According to legend, complaints about fumes and water pollution were what forced one Charles R. Lindsay in 1931 to move his Lindsay Light and Chemical Company out of its factory at 131 E. Grand in Chicago. He set up shop 35 miles west in West Chicago, a community with excellent rail facilities. Using powerful acids, Lindsay’s firm extracted thorium from monazite ore and left behind the radioactive tailings. It also pumped the liquid chemical waste into percolating ponds to either evaporate or soak into the ground.
“They just had open pools of these powerful chemicals,” said Kassanits. “Old-timers [in West Chicago] have told me that gases would turn window panes blue and rot the curtains right off the rods.”
During World War II, Lindsay Light was at full production, manufacturing gas mantles, electrical fixtures, and rare earth elements (elements 57 through 71 on the periodic table). It also supplied Enrico Fermi with materials for his atomic research. And although residents were welcome to take the tailings for use as landfill, the firm’s mound of refuse continued to grow.
“They had so much of it,” said Dan Balocca, the other founder of TAG. “I’m convinced that they just piled it up on the factory site thinking that they’d find a way to reprocess it some day and get more out of it. Lindsay was trying to be an alchemist with this sand.”
In 1958, Lindsay Light and Chemical was purchased by American Potash and Chemical Corporation. Production continued as normal–and so did the environmental horror stories.
Judy Wall, who moved into West Chicago in 1956 when she was 11 years old, recalls playing in Kress Creek with her brother during the late 50s and seeing duck eggs without shells and other assorted nasty things.
“There were deformed fish,” Wall said. “Most of them were carp, and they were all bumpy and lumpy–and there were just too many of them to be a lark. There were some of them that were normal, but the majority of them were really ugly, horrible-looking things. And I just don’t think anybody believed us–you know–nobody’s going to listen to kids.
“The things that we played with when we were kids, I can’t believe it now,” she said. “Nobody had any idea. We’d catch fish and we ate our catches. We’d catch frogs, and my mother would make us frog legs.
“That’s kind of scary in itself. But then there was also a place where there was almost like sewage coming in. And when we’d play in there we’d turn purple. We would literally turn purple.”
Today, Wall has Hodgkin’s disease, a rare cancer of the lymph nodes. Curiously, there are at least three persons with Hodgkin’s disease among West Chicago’s 15,000 residents. One of them was discovered to have played in a thorium-filled sandbox as a child.
“I worry about my brother, too,” Wall said. “He breaks bones all the time, and that makes me wonder. He broke his collarbone, he broke his leg, he broke his arm. I mean, it’s not cancer, but maybe it will be someday.”
Kerr-McGee absorbed American Potash on December 29, 1967, and continued operating in West Chicago until 1973. Kerr-McGee presented a plan–such as it was–to dispose of its mound of waste there in 1979.
In its 1990 third-quarter corporate report, the Kerr-McGee Corporation showed an overall operating profit of $100 million–up from $88 million for the third quarter of 1989. The facility in West Chicago is controlled by the Kerr-McGee Chemical Corporation, a subsidiary whose third-quarter profit last year was $30 million–$4 million less than in 1989. The reason given for the decrease was “a reserve increase for future environmental expenses.”
Kerr-McGee’s strong numbers may earn the Oklahoma City-based corporation respect on Wall Street, but in West Chicago Kerr-McGee was perceived as a greedy corporate giant willing to sacrifice the life of a small town in order to put more money into the pockets of its stockholders.
“How can you expect a town like this not to die with a radioactive dump in the middle of it?” Kassanits asked. “If Kerr-McGee is allowed to bury it right in the middle of town, how can you expect a town to overcome that?”
“We’re trying to develop as a high-tech area,” said Representative Hensel. “And if CEOs and presidents of companies who may want to locate new businesses here were to fly into Du Page Airport and see this 40-foot mound, they’d say, “What’s that?’ And somebody tells them what it is. They’d probably tell the pilot to make a pass and keep going. I mean, who needs it?”
“The entire justification for leaving the material in West Chicago is to save the stockholders of the Kerr-McGee Corporation from expending any money,” Eugene Rennels, West Chicago’s mayor from 1977 to ’89, said earlier this year. “[It’s] corporate greed. Why spend a dollar unless somebody forces you to spend it?”
Until the decision three months ago by the Atomic Safety and License Appeal Board (a judicial branch of the NRC) voiding Kerr-McGee’s license to bury Mount Thorium in clay, the NRC had been Kerr-McGee’s sturdy ally. But unlike Kerr-McGee, whose actions can be explained in terms of dollars and cents, the NRC left people in West Chicago and Springfield alike exasperated and confused.
“They license, they take their fees from licensing, and then they walk away,” said Rennels. “Because it would set a precedent if they ruled against any of their license holders, they’ve always ruled in favor of their license holders. They never turn anybody down that holds a license–but they sure don’t take care of the general public.”
The main point of friction concerned a set of regulations officially known as “10 CFR 40 Appendix A” that deals with the location of permanent disposal facilities for radioactive materials.
“There are three cardinal rules that exist in both common sense and NRC regulations,” said Joe Karaganis of Karaganis & White, the Chicago environmental law firm hired by the city of West Chicago to fight Kerr-McGee. “These rules operate under the premise that, ultimately, something will go wrong. So, when and if failure occurs, it will happen where it will cause the least damage. These rules have been ignored by Kerr-McGee and the staff of the [NRC] Licensing Board.”
Essentially, these rules are: that the waste disposal site be in a remote location, that it be nowhere near water supplies, and that it be built below ground.
But the design submitted by Kerr-McGee and approved by the NRC licensing board last year called for something 46 feet high (roughly the equivalent of a four-story building), in the middle of town (near five schools, no less), and 90 feet above a major aquifer.
“This is also a high-erosion area because of the rivers, and the thing would be in the middle of a residential area–there are houses right across the street, and it’s right over our major water supply,” said TAG member Dennis Baxter. “It’s like, ‘You’re kiddin’ me, right? This isn’t true. This can’t possibly happen.'”
“They [Kerr-McGee] broke all their rules and the NRC still was going to let them build it anyway,” Kassanits said. “I couldn’t have been any angrier with the NRC and Kerr-McGee. It was just a blatant disregard for the health of our people.”
In 1923 Oklahoma bankers Bert and Bill Dixon came into possession of two oil rigs and they hired oil driller Jim Anderson to run them. About two years later, the Dixons hired Anderson’s brother-in-law Bob Kerr to be their “contact man” to secure drilling contracts. The in-laws made a good team. Anderson knew how to get oil out of the ground, and Kerr–a future governor and U.S. senator–knew how to get the money to finance the operation. (In a 1959 letter, Anderson told Kerr that one of his greatest gifts was his “talent for separating investment capital from its owners.”)
In 1929 they bought out the Dixon brothers and became the Anderson-Kerr Drilling Company. By 1935 the small company’s chances for survival looked slim. According to the firm’s authorized history, Innovations in Energy: The Story of Kerr-McGee, a February 28, 1935, balance sheet showed $106.66 in the bank and a deficit of $117,517.28. Meanwhile, larger Oklahoma oil companies were faced with a unique problem: a thriving, growing community had sprung up around what was then the country’s second-largest oil field: Oklahoma City.
Oil rigs had been erected throughout town, and the fear of fire and explosions (both quite common in the early oil days) threatened property values and drove up insurance costs. Property owners and the city planning commission both objected to a proposed extension of drilling on the city’s east side. Under extreme pressure from both sides of the question, the city council put it to a referendum.
Phillips Petroleum Company had a lot at stake, and it urged Kerr to use his powers of persuasion to campaign for the extension. Kerr agreed to do so, and the proextension forces won by a 13,527-9,994 vote. Phillips subsequently made a lucrative deal with Anderson-Kerr that guaranteed the company’s future. After Anderson retired, Kerr lured away from Phillips two men with whom he would share his company’s name: first Robert Lynn and then Dean McGee.
While the Oklahoma City election became a fundamental part of corporate lore, West Chicago was never supposed to be more than a footnote. Innovations in Energy (published in 1979) makes one fleeting reference to an American Potash facility in Illinois.
“Kerr-McGee bought out American Potash mostly for their mineral rights in other places in the world,” Rich Kassanits said. “The operation in West Chicago was small potatoes.”
Myron Cunningham, a Kerr-McGee spokesperson, agreed that the West Chicago facility was not the reason why the corporation purchased American Potash in 1967 for an estimated $130 million.
“There were a number of facilities that were the primary reason for Kerr-McGee’s interest in American Potash,” Cunningham said. “One of them was in southern California, where soda ash was produced. The other was in Mississippi, where titanium dioxide was produced.” (Titanium dioxide is used as a white pigment in paints. It is one of Kerr-McGee’s biggest profit generators.)
“I think it would be safe to say that no one who represented the interests of Kerr-McGee in that acquisition considered the facility at West Chicago to be a reason to acquire the parent company,” Cunningham explained. “And so, in fact, we did inherit what might be described as a very ancillary facility.”
After explaining Kerr-McGee’s acquisition of the West Chicago operation, Cunningham described why the corporation shut it down.
“From 1969 to 1973, what we do is satisfy contractual obligations of American Potash,” Cunningham said. “At the conclusion of that process, we determine that it is no longer profitable to take monazite ore into that facility and extract thorium from it. And we proceed to study that particular facility to decide what would be the best thing to do with it. At some point, later in the 70s, we decide that the only prudent course of action is to completely shut that operation down. And at that point we begin to evaluate the waste problem.”
Eugene Rennels, the former mayor, was a West Chicago alderman at that time. He disputes this story.
“They closed the operation, basically, because they could not operate and meet the environmental laws of the state of Illinois,” Rennels said.
“I personally cannot understand that statement,” said Cunningham, “for the reason that we were licensed by the federal government. So our ability to satisfy state regulations would not seem to be very relevant to a federally licensed and federally supervised site.”
Whatever the circumstances, it was the end of an era. The Kerr-McGee facility at 798 Factory St., formerly American Potash, before that Lindsay Light, was closed. Kerr-McGee dismantled everything, and now all that you ever see on the site are mobile office units and temporary equipment sheds–and, of course, the mound.
If you thought Twin Peaks was hard to follow, the “Mount Thorium” plot from the late 70s to the mid-80s had even more complications.
The drama was played out not on a stage but in a three-ring circus. In one ring were the proceedings before the NRC concerning Kerr-McGee’s plan to build its waste disposal facility. In another was the state of Illinois’ struggle to gain jurisdictional control over the mound. The third attraction was the environmental battle pitting the state against Kerr-McGee Chemical.
Public documents of all this litigation fill a floor-to-ceiling bookcase in the basement of the West Chicago public library. On the floor next to the bookcase is a large cardboard box containing even more documents.
In the mid-70s, various residents of West Chicago discovered that their yards were radioactive. They thanked Lindsay Light and Chemical Corporation for the landfill it once so generously provided, and also the winds that blew across the mound of radioactive tailings.
In 1974, Argonne National Laboratory investigators determined that Kress Creek was contaminated by radioactive wastes. This discovery led to scientists in helicopters mapping hot spots, then wandering through town with Geiger counters digging up soil samples. Their conclusion: low-level radiation was all over town.
Contaminated soil was dug up and added to the ever-growing mound. And the mound was capped with asphalt and soil.
“All known residential areas inside the city have been decontaminated down to a level of 35 microrems per hour–which is still about three times background radiation levels,” said Dave Ed, a senior scientist with the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety (IDNS). “Actually, they cleaned it down to 30. The number they agreed to with the U.S. EPA was 35, but as a safety margin of error, the operational number they used in the field was 30.”
Some West Chicagoans actually praised Kerr-McGee for the company’s cleanup.
“I found they were very professional and they were very careful about what they were doing,” said city administrator Don Foster, who’d been West Chicago’s public works director in the mid-80s. “I thought they had done a good job.”
In 1984 four West Chicago areas were put on the EPA’s proposed Superfund list of hazardous waste sites requiring cleanups: Reed-Keppler Park (which contains the only surviving temporary storage area), the waste-water treatment plant, a collection of scattered residential sites, and Kress Creek and the adjoining west branch of the Du Page River. The first three were named to the official Superfund list last year, and the Kress Creek/Du Page River site was so honored this February.
TAG member Christine Baxter (Dennis’s wife) thinks the federal government had its priorities out of order for never addressing the mound. “If you don’t cut down the tree, you’ll still have the fruit,” Baxter said. “So far the tree is the only thing that’s not on the Superfund list.”
Probably the person who best understands the particular hazards at West Chicago’s various Superfund sites is Dave Ed of the IDNS. Ed was part of the Geiger-counter invasion of West Chicago. He has participated in the various cleanups and has helped devise, maintain, and interpret data from the radiation monitoring system in West Chicago.
“The sites vary in degree of hazard,” Ed said. “As Superfund sites go, the park is pretty innocuous. We surveyed the park rather thoroughly, and the only dangerous area has been fenced off. So the hazard there is pretty much nonexistent–unless you climb the fence. You really have to do something to try to expose yourself [to radiation] at the park.”
Reed-Keppler Park sits on 104 rolling acres on the north end of West Chicago. The contaminated area has been guarded by barbed wire for some five years now, and has been left pretty much untouched. Except for the Caution Radioactive Materials signs, it looks normal.
A mile and a half south of the park, on the other end of town, is the radioactive mound. In between are a preschool, an elementary school, and a high school. South of the mound is Kress Creek–running between West Chicago’s southern boundary and the northeast corner of Fermilab.
At the request of the NRC, Argonne National Laboratory tested the creek in 1974 and found radiation levels of 150 microrems per hour at various locations. (A reading of 8 to 12 is considered normal “background” radiation.) The EPA did soil and sediment tests in 1980 and identified the primary radiation sources as thorium 232 and 228. The agency concluded that the distribution of radioactive material was “much more extensive” than the Argonne study had indicated.
In December 1982 and April 1983, the creek was tested again by scientists with the Radiological Site Assessment Program of Oak Ridge Associated Universities in Tennessee. They found that the creek also contained uranium 238 and radium 226, “but in quantities so low in comparison with the thorium as to be inconsequential.”
More significant was the discovery that, in many areas, flooding had deposited thorium-contaminated residues “well beyond the immediate banks of the creek.” Most residues were found at points where the creek “abruptly changed speed or direction.”
Oak Ridge concluded that “the levels of direct radiation and radionuclide concentrations in soil and sediment at many locations along Kress Creek and the Du Page River exceed target criteria proposed by the EPA and NRC for uncontrolled use by the general public.”
But are these levels hazardous? According to Ed, yes . . . and no.
“There are some [areas] that we know that the radiation levels are quite high and continuous occupancy of these spots could be hazardous,” Ed said. “But none of those spots would be occupied continuously. Where the levels are higher, the people aren’t there–for long periods of time, anyway. The other [contaminated] residential areas, where people live, play, and so on, the levels of contamination are not high enough to pose a threat–even if you are exposed for considerable lengths of time.”
People of the State of Illinois v. Kerr-McGee Chemical Corporation got under way on April 28, 1980. Attorney General William Scott filed a nine-point complaint charging Kerr-McGee with violating Illinois’ Environmental Protection Act with respect to land, air, and water. He threw in a “common law nuisance” charge for good measure.
“At the time, the place was practically vacated,” explained Eugene Rennels, then the mayor of West Chicago. “The buildings were in a total state of disrepair: vandalized, holes in the ceiling, vermin, windows broken out. And under the nuisance laws of the state of Illinois, we ordered them out.
“As a matter of fact, we cited them under city code and city ordinances, which technically would have been a $50 fine in circuit court.”
After being filed, the case was moved–on Kerr-McGee’s motion–to federal court. In August 1980, U.S. District Judge Frank McGarr dismissed the state’s complaint on grounds that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had jurisdiction, not the state. The state appealed, and in May 1982 the case was remanded by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals back to state court.
After a few more motions, the trial commenced on March 4, 1986, and ended inconclusively in August. Circuit Judge Frederick Henzi dismissed the portions of the suit pertaining to air pollution. But he never did rule on the allegations of land and groundwater pollution; and on May 1, 1989, he died.
In 1977, the NRC ordered Kerr-McGee to prepare a plan for permanent disposal of the radioactive mound in West Chicago. Kerr-McGee submitted a plan for on-site disposal in 1979. In response, the NRC published a Draft Environmental Statement (DES) in 1982.
What followed was a decade of final environmental statements, supplemental final statements, and draft supplemental final environmental statements, with hearings, comments, motions, or countermotions on each one. Through it all, things definitely went Kerr-McGee’s way.
“The Nuclear Regulatory Com- mission . . . basically was looking at the site like a mill tailing site you might find in a western state,” Foster said. “They really weren’t concerned that this was a residential area.”
“The Uranium Mill Tailings Act was written for the desert–it was not written for urbanized areas,” Rennels said. “It was written for the desert, because that’s where uranium mill tailings are. And that’s where they should be stored: in desertlike surroundings.”
In addition to the NRC’s problem with geography, another point in Kerr-McGee’s favor was the local city hall’s seeming unwillingness to get in the corporation’s way.
“Our city council in 1984 voted to not allow the city to be a party to the adversarial public hearings,” Rennels said. “They wouldn’t allow us to have standing before the NRC. I favored the city having jurisdictional responsibility–unfortunately, the majority of the aldermen did not. They were spokesmen primarily for Kerr-McGee at that time. Fortunately, the attorney general picked that gauntlet up for us.”
City administrator Don Foster agreed that state involvement was the key to turning things around.
“Up until that point, it seemed our fight was slowly going downhill,” he said. “There wasn’t much hope until we got the state involved, and they ended up helping us and kind of taking the lead in the whole issue.”
On June 1, 1987, the NRC relinquished to the individual states jurisdiction over low-level radioactive waste classified as “source material.” However, Kerr-McGee’s waste in West Chicago was classified as “by-product material” under the federal Atomic Energy Act. In order to gain jurisdictional control over it from the NRC, Illinois had to draft an amendment to its “Agreement State Status” compact with the NRC, have the state legislature pass it and the governor sign it, and then present it to the NRC and await the commission’s OK. Rennels and the area’s legislators–Senator Doris Karpiel and Representative Donald Hensel–drafted the amendment. “It passed the house before it really caught the attention of Kerr-McGee,” Karpiel said. “So, now they were over in the senate really lobbying against the bill.”
According to Karpiel and Rennels, Kerr-McGee’s argument was that there was no other place in the nation that could take the material in West Chicago. But the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety decided not to take the corporation’s word for it. The department started calling every disposal site in the country and found 18 that were willing to take the material in West Chicago–including the Cuevera Mining Company, which at the time was a wholly owned subsidiary of Kerr-McGee in New Mexico.
“I found that to be really kind of ludicrous when they were going around saying there was no place that could take it,” Karpiel said, “and yet they had one themselves that would have accommodated it.”
Armed with this new knowledge, Karpiel and Representative Hensel paid a visit to the press.
“It really was kind of dramatic,” Karpiel laughed. “We went down to the editorial boards of both the Tribune and the Sun-Times and told them about the situation. The senate hearing of the Energy and Environment Committee was coming up on Friday, so we told both editorial boards, ‘If you’re going to do anything, we’d appreciate it if you did it before Friday.’ And sure enough, both papers came out Friday morning of the committee hearing with very strong editorials against Kerr-McGee and what they wanted to do. And so, that was very helpful also at the time.
“Then, in committee, that was a pretty dramatic scene also,” Karpiel recalled. “They brought an attorney from Washington or New York, and they had several of their executives from their corporate headquarters in Oklahoma there testifying. The first thing the attorney said to the committee was, ‘I realize that you people don’t understand this issue very well. I do.’ Or something to that effect.
“Well, that caught their attention right away,” Karpiel laughed. “He did not, I think, do a very good job of lobbying his cause.”
The bill sailed through the senate, and Governor Thompson signed it in August of ’88. The anti-Kerr-McGee forces had finally won a victory, and the company’s lobbying tactics received a lot of the credit.
“[It] really turned the tide in West Chicago’s favor with the legislature at that time,” Karpiel said, “because they did, in fact, lie about the fact that there was no place to put it. They told that to several legislators. And when they found out differently, they were really upset.”
“Senator Rock, the president of the senate, was irate,” Rennels said. “I’ve known Phil for several years. I saw him right after he had met with Kerr-McGee and found out that he had been lied to. And he told me ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s coming out of the senate. You’ve got no problem with that at all.’ He was livid. I’ve never seen the man as mad as he was.
“They have no problems in making statements to any group, any agency, or any individual that is beneficial to them–regardless of whether or not that information is based in fact or fiction,” Rennels went on. “While Kerr-McGee was saying, ‘There is no place in the world you can put it,’ Cuevera Mining Company was a wholly owned subsidiary of Kerr-McGee. Cuevera Mining Company is licensed to hold uranium mill tailings, and this is a uranium mill tailing. After we made that information public they sold off Cuevera Mining Company. They got caught. So rather than somebody saying ‘Put it on your own property,’ they sold their property.”
Kerr-McGee remembers it all differently.
“There has never been a question, from my perspective, of our honesty with the citizens of West Chicago, the residents of the state of Illinois, or any of the agencies,” said corporate spokesman Myron Cunningham. “Clearly, we have operated throughout this process with the utmost integrity.
“[In regard to the] generic reference to our saying ‘no sites available’ and someone else has said there are sites willing to take it,” Cunningham said, “those other sites that may have been available may have been a function of willingness to receive with no [federal licensed] authority. And, not knowing the particulars of the sites being alluded to, I really can’t go beyond that.”
Karpiel admitted that all 18 sites might not have been properly licensed. But getting the right license can be simply a matter of applying for it. For example, at this time the most likely destination for the West Chicago waste appears to be a facility in Utah operated by a company called Envirocare–which is not now licensed to accept this type of by-product material. But the facility is going through the licensing process and its prospects look good; it is already storing four million tons of uranium mill tailings it received from a shut-down plant in Salt Lake City.
Cunningham also declared that Kerr-McGee’s unloading of Cuevera Mining Company was a carefully arrived at business decision, and any other interpretation of it would be “erroneous.”
“We had two subsidiaries that were engaged in what I will call ‘nuclear activities,’ in the sense that they handled radioactive materials,” Cunningham explained. “One was a company called Cuevera Mining, and Cuevera held uranium assets in New Mexico. A second one was described and identified as Sequoyah Fuels. We made a deliberate, comprehensive decision to withdraw from businesses that were engaged in nuclear activities.
“So what has been described as an attempt on our part to eliminate an alternative to our facility in West Chicago for the permanent disposal of thorium-contaminated material is just simply fatally flawed,” Cunningham added. “It was a decision to get out of a noncore business, and we made that in a methodical fashion over quite a great deal of time.”
The story of the Sequoyah Fuel Corporation in Gore, Oklahoma, makes an interesting sidebar to the West Chicago saga. Starting in the mid-70s (and gaining the approval of the NRC in 1982), the company conducted an experiment in which it sprayed an ammonium nitrate solution mixed with uranium-contaminated wastewater onto farm plots as fertilizer.
Strange things began to happen. Among the oddities discovered were a nine-legged frog, a rabbit with two hearts, and a leukemia rate for white men in the area that was five percentage points higher than the national average.
In 1986 the Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB) ruled that the radioactive fertilizer was a “potentially harmful by-product,” and that its use warranted stricter monitoring. Sequoyah Fuels/Kerr-McGee merely waved its NRC permit at the OWRB. The company argued that the NRC had OK’d what Sequoyah was doing and the NRC outranked the state. The OWRB subsequently withdrew its demands. In West Chicago, Kerr-McGee would also try to use its NRC license as both shield and hammer to ward off the EPA and to quash local opposition.
While the state application for jurisdiction over the thorium mound was moving glacially through the approval process within one arm of the NRC, and Kerr-McGee’s license application to dispose of the mound on-site proceeded through another, the citizens of West Chicago remained curiously silent.
“The headlines were looking bad, and there was still no citizen response to all these ominous and eminent decisions coming down against West Chicago,” said Dan Balocca. “The local paper (the West Chicago Press) even ran a ‘What’s going on here? Doesn’t anybody care?’ type of editorial. So we said we’re not gonna go down without a fight. And ‘if no one else is gonna do it, we’re gonna do it’ was kind of our attitude.”
It was late December 1989 and the final hearing before the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board had just been completed when Balocca, a 29-year-old computer systems analyst, and Rich Kassanits, a 37-year-old engineer, got things rolling. Balocca and Kassanits and their wives invited a group of concerned neighbors over to the Baloccas’ dining room to map out a battle plan.
First the group needed a name. Feeling some obligation to match the cleverness of other citizen groups with witty acronyms, in particular a Kane County group called CATCH (Citizens Against the Collider Here), they toyed with SCARED, but couldn’t find the right combination of words. They got as close as “(S)citizens Concerned About Radioactive Emanation” before abandoning the hunt. Lowering their sights considerably, they considered TIG for Thorium Information Group and TIN for Thorium Information Network before settling on TAG for Thorium Action Group.
Next they drew up an ad for the Press that said, “Thorium?! How do you feel about it?” and invited all interested parties to attend a meeting at the local community center.
The Press further helped publicize the meeting by interviewing TAG’s founders and running a front-page story on the group. About 35 or 40 people came to the first meeting, and double that to the next.
“It looked to us that the NRC was on the verge of giving Kerr-McGee the OK to bury the stuff on-site after ten years of fights, and it didn’t look good for West Chicago,” Kassanits said. “It seemed to us that they were speeding up the process. It seemed to us that the NRC and Kerr-McGee were working together too closely to get this thing down–and at our expense.
“Even though it was the 11th hour–actually it was later than the 11th hour–we felt we had to do something. It’ll stir the blood when it looks like they will entomb this stuff forever in your town.”
Not all blood was as stirred as his own. Balocca told of a group that sprang up called “Friends of Kerr-McGee” that wrote letters to the Press praising the corporation. “One of them ran a response to the Kerr-McGee plan that said “Build it, but build it well,”‘ Balocca said. “It was this group of people that, even today, act very strange.”
And other residents who weren’t necessarily fond of Kerr-McGee objected to TAG because they thought that the more publicity the radioactive-waste issue received the less their homes would be worth.
“Much of the public over the years, led by various realtors in the area, wanted to adopt the ostrich complex,” Rennels said. “If they stuck their heads in that monazite ore over there, they couldn’t see it. Therefore, it’d go away.”
“It’s a two-edged sword,” reflected city administrator Don Foster. “Certain people didn’t want to raise the consciousness level, because by so doing you discourage new people from moving in. I think there’s no doubt it’s had an impact. But in the long term it was something that really had to be done if you were going to resolve the problem and remove the stuff.”
Aldo Botti, chairman of the Du Page County Board, agrees.
“They are very courageous people, you understand, to go out and place in jeopardy the value of their homes by bringing this to the forefront,” Botti said. “They need all the encouragement and support they can get. Because most people–heretofore–would not mention the fact there was radioactive material in West Chicago for fear that their homes would not bring in the best value. So these kids–this is a new generation of residents in West Chicago–turn around and say, ‘This is wrong and we want to correct it for this generation and the next generation.’ And so anything I can do to help them, I will. And Kerr-McGee is absolutely wrong.”
Former mayor Eugene Rennels described the effect of the radioactive wastes on property values.
“The environmental impact statements indicated that property values in the general area of the factory site are 8 to 10 percent lower than like property in another community, and they contend that it’s directly related to the factory situation,” Rennels said. “During my years as mayor, I can tell you that the assessed value of the community–even my own house–has grown. It has not grown community-wide in the same percentage that other communities have, and some of that is directly attributable to the fact that there’s radioactive material in the community. It may have grown 40 percent where everybody else grew 48 to 52.”
(The day after Kerr-McGee agreed in principle to move the material out of West Chicago, Balocca joked that “our housing values are going up even as we speak.”)
The combination of a mobilized citizenry and an election year guaranteed that the spotlight on West Chicago’s thorium mound would not diminish in 1990.
“We had powerful people on our side who were waiting for the community to voice their objection,” Kassanits said. “West Chicago had a reputation for being apathetic, and all the state agencies said, ‘If West Chicago doesn’t care about it, we don’t care about it.’ But once that missing ingredient–public outcry–was added, that got everything rolling.”
Paul Simon, Jim Edgar, and Neil Hartigan all paraded through West Chicago last year. But it was a line from Bob Kustra, who’s now the lieutenant governor, that residents remember best. Kustra surveyed the mound and asserted, “It’s bizarre! You wouldn’t be allowed to build a gas station on this site.”
The NRC had not agreed.
On February 14, 1990, despite growing public opposition (TAG was now a month old) and despite the NRC’s own criteria requiring below-grade storage far from people and water systems, the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board OK’d Kerr-McGee’s plan for permanent on-site disposal. The NRC staff was told to issue the corporation a license to build its 46-foot-high, 27-acre thorium tomb.
The state quickly petitioned the ASLB to stay this order, while appealing to the Atomic Safety and Licensing Appeal Board to reverse it. About 100 TAG members picketed the regional NRC office in Glen Ellyn. And the city of West Chicago hired the law firm of Karaganis & White to help fight both Kerr-McGee and the NRC.
These maneuvers accomplished nothing. The stay was refused and the NRC issued Kerr-McGee the license it needed. The corporation’s bulldozers were ready to go. So the city informed Kerr-McGee that it couldn’t start construction because it didn’t have a municipal excavation permit!
On March 6, Mayor Paul Netzel taped a stop-work order on the factory fence and threatened to arrest Kerr-McGee employees if their bulldozers broke ground. Kerr-McGee went to court seeking an exemption from local ordinances–after all, it had permission from the NRC. This time the corporation didn’t get its way.
U.S. District Judge James Holderman, citing earlier Kerr-McGee promises to abide by local ordinances, accused the corporation of “two-faced double dealing.” He criticized it for filing a “frivolous complaint” and he upheld the stop-work order.
“Between March 6 and March 15, that was about the only thing that was holding them back from starting,” Balocca said. “Earlier the city tried to ban [radioactive materials] from being transported on the streets, because they control the streets, and that didn’t hold up in court. They also controlled zoning and building permits. And that was a good argument, and it just so happened that that one stuck. The argument was that Commonwealth Edison has filed all kinds of local permits for their Zion nuclear plant, and they follow all the local ordinances. And Kerr-McGee in the past has followed building-permit proceedings. So why stop now?
“Rich [Kassanits] made a joke,” Balocca added. “You can just picture these eight [Kerr-McGee] lawyers in an elevator going, ‘I thought you got the permit. You idiot!’ They really are stupid sometimes.”
The state used the same strategy to obtain another injunction against the corporation. Alleging that the proposed disposal site was a potential wastewater emission source and air-contaminant source, the attorney general’s office said the facility required construction permits from the Illinois EPA. Du Page County Circuit Judge John W. Darrah agreed and granted a temporary restraining order barring Kerr-McGee from starting construction until it obtained those permits.
Kerr-McGee never did apply for the permits, but the company filed several other motions–including one to remove Judge Darrah from the case.
The federal EPA also stepped in, filing a friend of the court brief in West Chicago’s appeal of the NRC’s licensing decision. The EPA cited “serious flaws” in Kerr-McGee’s plan.
On March 27, 1990, senior vice president Tom McDaniel appeared with Kassanits, Mayor Netzel, and representatives of the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety on a local cable television program called Accent on Issues. McDaniel was asked why Kerr-McGee didn’t quit fighting and use the money it was spending on legal fees to ship the radioactive material out of town? McDaniel replied, “If the choices were given to me to be popular [in West Chicago] or spend millions of dollars of our shareholders unnecessarily . . . we’re going to do what’s in the best interest of our shareholders.”
This sort of candor helped turn West Chicago into a community of activists.
“I think [TAG] has kind of brought unanimity to the city,” Foster said back while the fight was on. “And the people that, in the past, might have been supportive of Kerr-McGee, I think, have come around to think that, well, maybe it isn’t foreordained that this stuff has to be here.”
“I don’t think they read the community properly, because they did not read the creation of TAG,” said Rennels, the former mayor. “And now, instead of one mayor with a handful of aldermen, they now have a whole community that is banded together. And they’re in worse shape now than they were when they were fighting just me.”
“They didn’t realize that the demographics of this town changed and people more likely to get active in the community had moved in,” said TAG member Dennis Baxter. “New blood is revitalizing the town, and they just weren’t prepared for it.”
Dennis and Christine Baxter, both 33, lived near California and Irving in Chicago before moving to West Chicago four years ago. The Kassanitses moved there a year and a half ago from Wheaton, but previously lived in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. The Baloccas are Wheaton natives and moved to West Chicago in 1984.
At last year’s annual “Railroad Days” summer festival, people sitting along the parade route all rose to cheer as TAG representatives marched by.
“It was like people were doing the wave as you went through,” Dennis Baxter said. “That’s what kind of support we had.”
Spring and summer were full of rallies, speeches, and legal maneuvers on both sides. But last October 17, West Chicago won its biggest victory yet: the NRC announced it would transfer jurisdictional authority over “Mount Thorium” to the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety as of November 1.
Governor Thompson and Representative Donald Hensel held a news conference outside the factory gates to announce the decision. Thompson summed up the situation by quoting Winston Churchill. “It’s not the end,” said the governor. “It’s not even the beginning of the end. But it’s the end of the beginning.”
As it turned out, Thompson was wrong. It was the beginning of the end for Kerr-McGee. Five days later, Attorney General Neil Hartigan and West Chicago jointly filed a motion with the appeal board: “In light of the NRC’s decision on October 17 to grant Illinois the authority to oversee radioactive waste, all previous orders before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Appeal Panel are moot and should be dismissed because of lack of jurisdiction.”
On December 5, the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety advised Kerr-McGee that as its federal NRC license would expire in March it had better apply for a state license soon or face the consequences.
Kerr-McGee continued to insist that it didn’t need a state license, but the ground was crumbling under its feet. It was beginning to look and sound ridiculous.
On January 16, 1991, a Kerr-McGee attorney testified before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Appeal Board. Richard Meserve warned of the risk of accident and exposure as truckload after truckload of radioactive materials left town.
“But there’s a rail spur right on-site,” said board chairman Thomas Moore. “So you ship it in 50 trains.”
“Perhaps someone from the city can speak about this,” Meserve said, “but I believe that that rail spur is going to be vacated. . . . The possibility of materials being moved by rail to another site is by no means an obvious and easy outcome.”
Later in the proceedings, Joe Karaganis called this nonsense.
“We’ve got some of the best long-haul rail service in the country and we have a number of major unit train operations that are available for that city,” Karaganis testified. “So rail is readily available in the city of West Chicago.”
Kerr-McGee was on the ropes and time was running out. The company’s license to bury radioactive material in West Chicago was set to expire on midnight March 10. TAG planned a rally and encouraged participants to bring shovels, buckets, and even wheelbarrows to demonstrate their willingness to help Kerr-McGee get the thorium out.
But on March 1 the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Appeal Board surprised everyone. The board canceled Kerr-McGee’s license and issued a stinging 125-page decision that all but declared the NRC staff that issued the license incompetent.
“We consider it a total victory,” Matthew Dunn of the attorney general’s office told the West Chicago Press.
The ASLAB report read like a TAG policy statement. It echoed points TAG, the city, and the state had repeated until they were blue in the face. “The Licensing Board’s decision cannot stand. . . . There is no dispute that the West Chicago site cannot be considered remote from populated areas. . . . The Board thus totally ignored the Criterion’s provisions specifying how siting and design factors . . . are to be weighed. . . . In- stead of putting its thumb on the long- term siting features side of the scale . . . as Criterion I requires, the Board tipped the balance in favor of short-term economic considera- tions . . .”
The reaction in Oklahoma City was not enthusiastic.
“You could characterize our response as disappointment,” said company spokesman Myron Cunningham. “The earlier board reviewed all of the criteria, reviewed all of the information, and when they issued their opinion a year ago they said that our plan for permanent, on-site disposal satisfied all requirements by wide margins.
“Personally, I just don’t know how the plan has changed to make it so appropriate that the licensing board would say that our plan met all the requirements by wide margins, and then, less than 12 months later, an appeals board says it’s inappropriate and reverses the earlier decision.”
Making it more expensive for Kerr-McGee to keep the material in West Chicago than to ship it out had always sounded like a good idea, but there’d been no way to do it. But with Kerr-McGee’s license revoked the state had clear jurisdiction over the radioactive material. It was now possible to squeeze the corporation financially.
Hensel and Karpiel introduced bills that would charge Kerr-McGee a $10-a-cubic-foot storage fee. The logic behind these measures was that if Kerr-McGee wasn’t going to move the material the state would–but first it would get money from Kerr-McGee to do the job.
Kerr-McGee’s lobbyists rushed to Springfield, only to find out how unpopular the corporation was down there. They asked Speaker Michael Madigan if he thought the bill would pass the house. No problem, he said. They asked senate president Phil Rock about the bill’s chances there. It’ll pass, he told them. They asked Jim Edgar’s office if the governor would sign the bill. But of course.
So it was time to negotiate. And this was the idea all along.
“The main thrust of presenting my bill was to have them sit down and talk, and let’s do something besides keeping it in the courts for the next ten years,” Hensel said. “We tried a lot of different things, and this was my last resort. I thought I’d just try to get their attention somehow and–apparently–it worked.”
Kerr-McGee met twice with Hensel and Karpiel, and then Karpiel called a meeting for May 14 that included both legislators, Scott Palmer from Congressman Hastert’s office, Mayor Paul Netzel, Joe Karaganis, and representatives of the governor, the attorney general, and the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety. Four and a half hours later, the five-point agreement was reached.
“It was an extremely exciting day,” Karpiel said. “When we first got in that room, everyone was a little tentative. We didn’t really know how far we were going to get that day–or if we were going to get anywhere at all.
“In the previous two meetings, they agreed to move it. But they kept doing the dance about there’s no place else to put it and they don’t want to put it in writing. But then this solid group kept saying, ‘We can’t go any further. You have to agree in writing that it’s not going to stay in West Chicago.’ We kept coming back with that point.
“As the momentum got going, I think everyone kind of realized that we were going to do it that day. It really was exciting. It just picked up speed as we went on.”
“It was amazing,” Hensel said. “I couldn’t believe that in a four-hour period this much was accomplished. I think everyone was elated. I think even Kerr-McGee was feeling better about it.”
On May 17, there was a celebratory rally at the factory gate.
“This is the way the system is really supposed to work,” a boisterous Karpiel proclaimed. “If we could take the same bipartisan–or nonpartisan–approach to all the state’s problems we could maybe get something done.”
Governor Edgar was there, too. He gave TAG the lion’s share of the credit.
“Without your efforts, those of us in public office would probably not have reacted as quickly or as positively as we have,” Edgar admitted, “because there are a lot of other concerns. Unfortunately, sometimes in our society it is the squeaky wheel that gets oiled. You didn’t squeak. You roared. And your roars made a difference.”
“It’s still hard to believe, people are still kind of in a daze,” says a reflective Kassanits. “We were in a mind-set where we were assured that, on the course we were on, it was going to be another three to four years of court battles to get where we are today. We were entrenched for a long battle.”
If the battle had gone as expected, it might have reached a point where the city and state could not afford to continue. West Chicago had budgeted $600,000 to pay Karaganis & White this year. To find the money, the city postponed scheduled renovations of its city hall, and there was a fear that it also would have to postpone renovations of its police station. It’s safe to assume that since 1973 many millions of dollars have been paid to lawyers by Kerr-McGee, the state of Illinois, and the city of West Chicago. And for what? Why is it so important that Kerr-McGee spend more than $120 million to dig this stuff up, put it on a train, and drop it in the middle of the Utah desert?
“It appears, from our data, that there is no imminent, immediate risk to folks nearby,” said Dave Ed of the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety. “Our concern at the department is the long-term. By ‘long-term’ I mean very long term. Not in matters of one or two years, but actually terms of time measured in decades and centuries. The radioactive half-life of the material is measured in billions of years. . . . So our major concern is that Kerr-McGee’s plan for on-site disposal will not last the thousands of years necessary to adequately separate or isolate those materials from nearby people.
“The population as a whole–they’re not really being exposed to any levels of radiation different than I am right now here in Springfield,” Ed added. “But that doesn’t mean there’s not a potential problem down the road, and that’s the problem we’re aimed at avoiding–trying not to will, or bequeath, this potential problem to future generations. Let’s just take care of it now.”
He said that epidemiological studies showing higher-than-normal incidences of certain types of cancer in West Chicago aren’t enough to prove that the presence of thorium-contaminated materials has endangered residents.
The most recent health study showed West Chicago men to have a 27.7 percent greater incidence of observed cancers than the norm, and West Chicago women a 19.5 greater incidence. (The Illinois Department of Public Health had studied cancer statistics of persons living in West Chicago’s 60185 zip code between 1985 and 1988.)
Thorium exposure has previously been linked to cancers of the liver, bone, and pancreas; however, West Chicago revealed no statistically significant deviations in those cancers. Furthermore, the study stated that no cancers of those types were observed in “areas with the highest potential exposure from contaminated soils or wastes.”
“Now something has caused that higher incidence of cancer,” Rennels said. “Radiation affects different people different ways. Some, it will never have any effect on them. Others, it will have a very drastic effect on them. Some it may be genetic and it might be third or fourth generation before anything shows up.
“During the years I was mayor, I said many times, ‘If the total scientific community will come forth in a unified voice and tell me there is no health safety danger to the city of West Chicago, now or anytime in the future, from this material being here, I’ll back off and the company can do whatever they want.’
“But I never got that assurance from the scientific community–including Kerr-McGee’s scientists.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.