By Kari Lydersen

When Mary and William Roberson bought their house in Oak Park in 1971, the park across the street was a major selling point. They’d moved from a small town in Virginia where, Mary says, “everyone has a half acre of land and you can’t reach out your window and shake hands with your neighbor. The park gave me at least one place to look where I didn’t see another house.”

Barrie Park, at Lombard and Garfield, became part of their lives. Their younger daughter, Grace, and son, William Jr., played softball and baseball there. “I can’t count how many games I watched from those bleachers,” says Mary. Their older daughter, Sheila, wasn’t as interested in sports. “She was more the type to go to the park and watch, or play with Barbie dolls and make mud pies.”

Three and a half years ago Sheila was diagnosed with cancer. When she learned that the park had once been the site of a manufactured-gas plant and that the soil might be contaminated with carcinogenic coal tar, she filed suit against the village of Oak Park, the Oak Park Park District, Nicor, and Commonwealth Edison for failing to notify the families who lived around the park of the danger.

Sheila was 11 when her family moved to Oak Park. “Just a little Southern girl moving North,” she wrote in her diary, and listed the names of the only two girls at school who would play with her. But Oak Park soon became home. During high school she worked part-time at a park district parking lot, and she lived at home for a year and a half while she studied nursing at Triton College. “When she realized she couldn’t stand the sight of blood,” says Mary, she decided to follow in her father’s footsteps and join the air force.

In early 1998 Sheila began keeping a diary so that her son could read it when he grew up. “In 1980 I decided I needed income and living space,” she wrote. “The air force seemed like the most logical choice. Mom was against it, dad for it. I joined to spread my wings.” Sheila was stationed first in the Philippines, where she did administrative work for the chaplains, then transferred to Sacramento. There, she wrote, “I somehow managed to get pregnant. I was ecstatic. I wanted a baby, and it had to be a son because I had a perfect name picked out–Robert.” That was the name of both her father’s brother and her mother’s uncle, who’d raised her mother.

Sheila did have a son, but she soon realized single motherhood and the air force didn’t mesh well. “I realized I needed to be home–Oak Park, not in the military,” she wrote. “I intentionally did stupid things that got me written up.” In 1983, after being given an honorable discharge, she moved back home. She soon married, and she and her husband moved to Florida to be with his parents, splitting their time between Oak Park and Florida over the next ten years.

Sheila had first noticed a raised spot on her right breast when she was 16, but her mother’s gynecologist had said it was nothing to worry about. By the early 90s she realized the spot had grown bigger, and she had biopsies done. Still nothing. She and her husband returned to Oak Park, where she found jobs at Spiegel’s and later Jewel. She and her mother frequently went to craft fairs together to sell needlepoint and refrigerator magnets, and she collected Beanie Babies, dolls, and angels. In her diaries she lists all the Beanie Babies by name.

On January 5, 1996, doctors found a new lump in her right breast. This time it was cancer. “She knew she had to make the decision to live or die, whether or not to fight it,” says Mary. “She chose to fight it, and she fought it with all she had.”

Sheila had a mastectomy, underwent chemotherapy, and went through a divorce at the same time. “They told me that in three weeks I would lose my hair,” she wrote in her diary. “Three weeks to the day I was taking a shower, and suddenly I saw all my hair–waist-length hair–in the bottom of the tub. I’m sure my screams woke the neighbors for miles around.”

The chemo seemed to work, and she went into remission. Her hair grew back, and she got a new job at Osco. Then last fall she discovered a lump in her armpit. On November 20 doctors told her the cancer had spread to her brain. “You can have no idea how devastated I was,” she wrote. “This was the darkest hour for me.” She started chemotherapy again, and her weight dropped from almost 200 pounds to 140 in a month.

While Sheila was undergoing chemo, the play lot in Barrie Park was capped with concrete and fenced off. Signs went up that read: “As part of our ongoing commitment to protect the environment, ComEd and Nicor Gas are investigating this property for by-products that may remain from a former manufactured gas plant.”

According to Stan Black, a community-relations coordinator for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, there were once about 175 manufactured-gas plants owned by public utilities in the state, along with a large number of plants owned by private corporations. From 1893 to 1928 Barrie Park had been the site of a plant owned by a predecessor of ComEd and Nicor.

Manufactured gas was produced from the mid-1800s until the middle of this century, when people turned to natural gas as a more efficient energy source. It was made from coal, purified, then piped away to be burned as fuel. Coal tar–a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon that’s a mix of more than 10,000 chemicals–remained as a by-product. It had many industrial uses and was often stored on-site in concrete or brick tar wells until it could be sold, but sometimes the surplus was simply dumped around the plant.

In 1928 aboveground tanks were built on the site to store liquefied natural gas. In 1931 they were demolished, though the tar wells were left intact. In 1938 the utility that would become ComEd started using the site as a vehicle garage and repair yard, and in 1954 it transferred the site to Northern Illinois Gas Company, which later became Nicor. In 1959 the land was sold to the village of Oak Park, which in 1965 turned it over to the park district. The park district put in two baseball diamonds, the play lot, green space, tree-lined paths, and a sledding hill.

Coal tar is extremely stable and barely begins to break down after hundreds of years. At Barrie Park it likely made its way into the soil as the concrete or brick-and-mortar tar wells disintegrated with age. Left alone, coal tar clings to the soil and rarely migrates or becomes airborne. “The easiest way to be exposed is through accidental swallowing or getting it in your nose and mouth if there is soil blowing in the wind,” says Black. “Barrie Park is very grassy, so there’s not a lot of soil blowing around. Children playing would be at the most risk of ingesting it.”

The risks of coal tar weren’t known until the early 80s, Black points out, and it wasn’t until the mid-80s that the EPA and utility companies started cleaning up, or remediating, manufactured-gas plant sites, removing the contaminated soil. For more than a decade ComEd and Nicor have been systematically remediating the sites they own. ComEd owns 44 in the state, and the problems at other sites were considered more urgent than those at Barrie Park. According to Black, one site–at Du Quoin, in south-central Illinois–had an open lagoon of coal tar.

Remediation must be done carefully. In 1987 in downstate Taylorville, remediation at a site owned by Central Illinois Public Services released coal tar into the air. According to Black, a few children in the area subsequently contracted neuroblastoma, a rare childhood cancer, and some died. Their families sued and last year ended up with a $3.2 million judgment against CIPS, though that judgment is being appealed. Black says the EPA doesn’t believe the remediation caused the neuroblastoma cases, pointing out that in Du Quoin, where the coal tar was open to the air, no neuroblastoma cases were reported.

An air-quality analysis done at Barrie Park in 1993 showed nothing amiss, so ComEd and the Illinois EPA felt there was no rush to further investigate the site. “We found there was no danger from breathing contaminants, which meant we didn’t have to remediate that site right away,” says Peter Trantow, director of ComEd’s customer relations.

Sheila’s lawsuit charges that workers building Barrie Park in the 60s had noticed coal tar at the site. But Black says that since no one knew it was carcinogenic then, no one would have thought it was a problem. “The U.S. EPA didn’t even exist until 1970, and there was no hazardous-waste legislation until 1976,” he says. “People just didn’t consider this an issue at that time.”

Black says that in November, around the time Sheila found out she had brain cancer, a routine soil probe by ComEd found coal tar about 12 inches below the surface in various parts of the park. They also found what he calls “pretty much actual coal tar” in the play-lot area. “This wasn’t heavily contaminated soil,” he says, “but we found coal-tar-related materials in higher levels than expected.”

The play lot was closed off, covered with impermeable plastic, then topped with concrete and playground mulch. “We found the contamination close enough to the surface to close the park to prevent someone digging and uncovering it,” says ComEd’s Trantow. “After we [capped it] we could have reopened the park, but we concurred with the park district’s idea to close it entirely.” ComEd then began testing the parkways on adjacent streets.

When Sheila and her family read about the coal tar in the park, they began to suspect it had played some role in her illness. Sheila’s paternal grandmother was the only family member who’d had cancer, and she hadn’t died until she was in her 80s. “I read an article about coal tar causing cancer in laboratory rats,” Sheila wrote in her diary. “I called the reporter and said a very large rat has it.” Mary says, “All the doctors said Sheila’s case was worse than anything they’d ever seen before. They called it cancer with an attitude. They were amazed at how fast it had spread. By the end she had tumors literally popping out of her skin–a few new ones every month. Something must have made it progress that fast.”

The more Sheila thought about the possibility that the coal tar had contributed to her disease, the angrier she got. In January a story about her appeared in the local paper Oak Leaves. On April 22 she filed her lawsuit against ComEd, the village of Oak Park, and the Oak Park Park District (Nicor was added later). “ComEd, by and through its predecessors, knew or should have known that its abandonment of coal tar and coal tar residues in the deteriorating underground storage tanks and structures would cause long-term contamination to the soil, groundwater and air,” the suit charged. “ComEd…should be held responsible for the injuries or damages to private citizens as a result of the conditions at Barrie Park….As a direct and proximate result of one or more of the foregoing acts or omissions, the plaintiff developed cancer.”

The suit also stated, “The plaintiff…will be deprived of enjoying a normal life and livelihood,” and it asked the court to “fully and fairly compensate her for all her losses.” Sheila’s attorneys called a press conference to announce the suit, and the story made the TV news.

Spokespeople for ComEd, the village, and the park district said that while they sympathized with Sheila, they didn’t believe there was any proof her condition had been caused or made worse by the park. “All of us at ComEd are sympathetic with Ms. Roberson and wish her well in her fight against cancer,” said Trantow in April. “But we have no reason to believe her cancer has any association with the manufactured-gas plant that once existed at Barrie Park.”

Ed Cooney, an environmental engineering consultant hired by the park district, says, “Breast cancer is not commonly caused by this material. Based on the evidence available at this time, it appears to be an unrelated event.”

Many people whose homes surround the park seem to agree. Some of them had formed Barrie Residents Against Toxins shortly after seeing the signs go up in the park, hoping to pressure ComEd and the village to clean up the site and reopen the park as soon as possible. Neither Sheila nor her parents joined the group. Mary says, “I was too busy with Sheila and my own problems.”

“It’s very horrible and sad what she’s going through,” Robert Baren, who also lives adjacent to the park and is one of the founders of BRAT, said in April. “Sheila’s going to die, and we recognize that anyone in that position would want to know why. And she had to file now if she wanted to file, because with her health she had no choice. But the residents don’t support her 100 percent. We’d never heard of this woman before her attorneys contacted us. She’d never come to any of our meetings, and we’d never met her family. The question is, is her breast cancer related to the park? She thinks it is. I’m not sold. I haven’t seen any facts saying breast cancer is related to being exposed to coal tar. The first reaction is a lot of public hysteria–‘Oh my God, we’re all going to die.’ Sheila Roberson regardless, we’re not all going to die. I try to take this dramatic equation out of the situation and leave the facts in. A lot of wringing of hands and filing lawsuits isn’t going to do any good.”

Baren, who played in the park as a child, and some other residents worried about all the publicity. “Nobody lives here who just plunked down money for their house,” he said. “This is like the other side of the tracks–it’s not the wealthy part of town. You lose your property values here and you’ve basically lost everything. This isn’t a walk-away type of thing.”

Mary responded angrily: “We’ve been as much as told that we have no right to go public with this, that it’s destroying the value of their property. Well, I’m not destroying anything. That plant destroyed them. People tell me not to talk about this because they want to sell their house to someone unsuspecting and get out.”

Baren, who works as a clerk at a law firm, also worried that the suit would put the village and ComEd on the defensive and discourage them from sharing information. “When you’re dealing with two or three government entities and a corporation and they’re getting sued, how do you negotiate with them to get information?” he said. “I mean, I wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for people wanting to sue, but this puts us in a precarious position. The lawsuit just adds fuel to the fire. My big fear is that Sheila Roberson’s lawsuit means this will be about one person’s individual crusade, when in reality it’s about hundreds of people.”

Kirk Ito, another BRAT member whose house faces the park, says, “The publicity could be a double-edged sword. It’s not like we’re enraged about it, but we think the concern needs to stay local. There’s no reason the whole city should know about this at this point.”

On May 12 Sheila, who was 39, died. Her family decided to go ahead with the suit.

Her death didn’t seem to change the attitude of some of her neighbors, even though her lawyers say they’ve gone to great lengths to meet with the community and find ways her suit, which is still in the discovery stage, can help them protect their health and their land. “At a press conference a neighbor of Sheila’s came across the street and started a hostile conversation,” says attorney David Kupets. “They thought the motivation was money. That’s not it at all–this is about Sheila’s rights. It’s about compensating her family and helping them raise her child because she’s not there to do it. We’re not trying to push our law firm’s name. We’re just trying to disseminate information to the community.” And he insists the lawsuit won’t lower property values. “Whether we filed the lawsuit or not, you’re not going to have people moving in without asking why the playground’s fenced off.”

Dennis DeCaro, the other attorney on the case, says, “Naturally people are concerned about their property values, but some of the residents just refuse to believe this is a serious problem. When we first started talking to them their main concern was, when will the park reopen? We thought they should have been concerned about the fact that they’re living on top of carcinogens.”

Kupets also says, “The lawsuit will inhibit a sloppy and mismanaged cleanup. Bugs don’t stick around when the light’s on them. When you allow them to do their thing without any review they can do whatever they want. With us watching them they have to do it by the book.”

But Baren thinks the suit could slow down the cleanup. Early in the summer ComEd estimated that it would take four years, though Baren and other BRAT members say the company originally promised to do the cleanup in a year and a half. Trantow says ComEd never promised to do the cleanup in that period of time, but that it will be done as quickly as possible.

The remediation is scheduled to start in January, because the work is best done in winter when the soil is cold and hard, making it less likely that coal tar would be released into the air. “Testing, lab results, and authenticating data takes a lot of time,” says Trantow. “We’re trying to maintain as fast a pace as we possibly can. The remediation process is very costly and deliberate. You can only have trucks going one way, and their tires have to be washed after leaving the contaminated soil. Fifteen trucks a day is the max you can do with a structure like that.”

Once the contaminated soil is removed, the EPA’s Black says, much of it will probably be burned in special incinerators. Any soil with high concentrations of coal tar will be treated as hazardous waste and stored in specially designated landfills.

ComEd has now finished testing the parkways as well as residents’ front yards. Officials were looking for evidence of off-site dumping, not surprising given that the area was mostly prairie at the time the plant was operating. Trantow says the first parkway test went down three feet and “looked pretty good.” But residents wanted ComEd to test deeper. “We’re trying not to let them wiggle out of going deeper,” said Elaine Mendoza before the tests were done. She’d noticed a tar smell and oil in her yard when she’d had work done on a gas line last spring. “But ComEd’s going to do what ComEd wants to do, regardless of what anyone does or says. I wouldn’t have moved here if I knew there could be underground coal tar containers buried below my house. I think they should have told us.”

Attorney DeCaro is unhappy that ComEd hasn’t done more widespread testing. He thinks backyards should have been tested as well. Trantow says ComEd will test backyards, though only if the front-yard tests indicate it’s necessary. DeCaro responds, “If they don’t find anything in these few select lawns, will they say it’s over and done with? All that means is they could have gone a few feet further to dump in the backyards.”

Mary Roberson agrees. “You and I both know that people don’t follow directions. They could be told to dump it 20 miles away, and they’ll just go down the road a few blocks and dump it.”

Trantow says ComEd is still trying to determine the extent of the contamination and therefore the extent of its responsibility for cleaning the area up. He explains that the Eisenhower Expressway is so close that it would cause the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons to be higher than normal in the soil–levels of these chemicals tend to be higher along freeways because they’re also found in exhaust. ComEd is planning to test surrounding areas to establish a baseline that Barrie Park would be compared to, and Nicor has tested other parks for the same reason. “There’s no question there’s contamination here,” he says. “The question is, what contamination resulted from the manufactured-gas plant? When we find that, we’ll go after it and clean it up. But just being near the Eisenhower is a source of contamination, and we haven’t agreed to clean that up.”

Black says, “We want them to find the background level and clean it up to that level. We don’t expect to ever find zero [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons], and it’s true that anywhere near a highway the levels will be higher. But the cleanup will have to meet what we consider acceptable health levels.”

The Robersons have to see the park they blame for Sheila’s death every time they open their front door or look out their window, but they have no plans to move. “Our house is paid for–my husband and I worked our behinds off,” says Mary. “Besides, who would we sell this house to? I wouldn’t sell this to anyone else–that would be morally wrong.”

She still tends her garden and spends many of her weekends sitting in the backyard. “I guess I should wear gloves,” she says. She worries about a raised red rash on her leg, which she says resembles the original spot on Sheila’s breast. It appeared last August, but she says that because of a change in her insurance plan at her job she hasn’t seen a doctor yet. “It looked like a mosquito bite,” she says. “I itched and scratched it, and it just kept spreading. I don’t know what it could be. I’m not allergic to anything.” She says the rash recently started to go away.

Her 25-year-old daughter Grace, who moved back home with her son last year to help take care of Sheila, has a similar rash on her stomach. “I’m scared,” says Grace. “I played in the park ever since I was born–and I was a thumb sucker. He knows about it.” She points to her son, who’s picking up pennies from the ground. “He asks, ‘Did you step in the poison in the park? Are you going to die?’ How do you explain that to a six-year-old?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.