Bubbles of methane gas rise to the oily surface of a small pond next to a heap of trash that includes a gas mask once used by an employee of the Alburn Incinerator, which used to stand here. Rusted barrels nestle in the reeds, and twisted pieces of metal poke up through the water and vegetation.

This spot about 15 miles from downtown is part of what the Environmental Protection Agency refers to as the Lake Calumet Cluster Site, four heavily contaminated parcels of land known as the Alburn Incinerator, the U.S. Drum Company, the Paxton Lagoon, and the prosaically named Unnamed Parcel–about 60 acres in all. The cluster site, located just east of Lake Calumet and west of North Indian Ridge Marsh, is bordered by 118th and 122nd streets and Torrance and Stony Island.

The Alburn hazardous-waste incinerator operated between 1967 and ’77. From the 1940s to 1979, U.S. Drum emptied and cleaned drums full of hazardous material and stored the waste. Paxton Lagoon was an illegal dumping site, and the Unnamed Parcel was likely used as a landfill between 1940 and ’60.

These are just the most heavily contaminated portions of a region rife with pollution. The surrounding area is also home to a sludge-drying bed, where treated sewage is discharged into the Calumet River, and a former Acme Steel coke plant. If this weren’t enough, nearby railroad tracks and the city auto pound to the north are ongoing sources of pollution, and extensive salt runoff from the Bishop Ford Expressway in winter is a serious problem. Much remediation has been done over the past 20 years by the U.S. and Illinois EPAs to prevent environmental emergencies, but significant problems remain.

“This was no-man’s-land in the 80s,” says Victor Crivello, a resident of nearby Pullman and a former environmental technician for the Illinois EPA. IEPA officials have described the cluster site as an ecological disaster–a festering brew of industrial and municipal waste including PCBs, lead, chromium, arsenic, and “volatile organic compounds” such as benzene, toluene, and xylene. These contaminants permeate the soil and groundwater and are present in varying degrees in the local ponds and marshes that feed the Calumet River, which runs into Lake Michigan. They pose hazards to the environment and to human health.

But this isn’t a doom-and-gloom story. The money to fix the problems at the cluster site exists. Federal and state EPA officials are all for fixing it and so is Governor Rod Blagojevich. All that’s needed now is the city’s OK.

The money would come from the Superfund, a program instituted in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter and Congress in the wake of the infamous Love Canal incident and other ecological emergencies in the late 70s. Love Canal is a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, that was built on top of a toxic-waste canal used by the Hooker Chemical Company in the 1940s and ’50s. Residents became aware of the site’s toxic legacy when sludge started seeping out of the sewers and the ground. High rates of cancer and other illnesses in the community were blamed on the toxins, and in 1980, after a study by the state health department, much of Love Canal was evacuated.

When a site is put on the Superfund National Priority List (NPL), the potentially responsible parties (PRPs) are contacted and ordered to fund the site’s cleanup. If they refuse, the government uses money from the Superfund to depollute the site, then may sue the PRPs for up to three times the cost of the cleanup. U.S. EPA records show that scores of regional and national companies–including Eastman Kodak, the Grand Rapids Area Transit Authority, the Mobil Oil Corporation, and the Wayne County General Hospital in Michigan–bear responsibility for dumping in or otherwise polluting the cluster site.

Last year Blagojevich sent a letter to the U.S. EPA endorsing an NPL listing for the cluster site. And officials with the U.S. EPA say they are eager to go forward with the listing–which would give Chicago its first NPL site. (There are currently about 1,300 in the U.S., 42 in Illinois.) But the EPA doesn’t usually move forward with an NPL listing unless the state and local governments support the move, and so far Daley’s administration has been reticent.

David Reynolds, first deputy commissioner for the Chicago Department of Environment, says the city isn’t likely to take a position on the Superfund listing. It’s waiting for more information from the U.S. EPA. “We need to know, if the site was listed, what’s true as far as how it would affect property values?” he says. “Is there a stigma associated with an NPL listing? How will it affect insurance rates in the area? What is the certainty of funding? If there’s data that suggest that property values decrease when a site gets put on the NPL, that insurance rates increase, and that there’s no certainty of funding, why do we want to do this?”

Reynolds notes that in the Department of Environment’s meetings with the Calumet Area Industrial Commission, a 135-member association of local manufacturers and industrial service providers, every commission member who spoke up was against the listing. “If they were on board we might support it, but that hasn’t been the case,” he says. “We can’t take a position until we know we have their support. The industrial commission’s concerns are the EPA’s to answer.” But EPA spokesman Mick Hans says that dealing with the industrial council and responding to concerns about property values isn’t really the EPA’s responsibility.

Jorge Perez, the president of the industrial commission, says the commission sent out a survey asking members questions about a potential NPL listing. He says about 40 responses were received, and they ran two to one against the listing. “There is all this new investment in the region, new roads and infrastructure, new businesses opening, and what happens when you put a Superfund down in the middle of that?” he says. “It does raise some serious concerns. Insurance companies aren’t supposed to consider a nearby Superfund, but if you get turned down for an insurance policy or a loan you’ll never know why, so it’s something that’s on people’s minds.”

Perez also says members have heard that “there’s no money for Superfund. So why should we do it?” Superfund reserve funds have dropped substantially over the past few years, largely because a tax on heavy industry known as the “polluter pays” provision expired in 1995 and hasn’t been renewed. Funding for Superfund now comes from the government’s general budget.

That’s why Kurt Nebel, a district manager at Waste Management, which operates a 400-acre landfill a mile south of the cluster site, opposes the listing. “Why would you do this if there’s no money to be had?” he says.

But William Muno, who recently retired as director of the Superfund for the Great Lakes region, and current EPA officials promise that if the Lake Calumet Cluster Site is listed on the NPL, funding for its cleanup will be found. Muno adds that ideally the PRPs would voluntarily clean up the site so that the stigma of the listing could be avoided. In October the U.S. EPA sent out more than 300 letters to PRPs for the Calumet site, and some of the PRPs have been holding meetings to decide whether to do a voluntary cleanup, according to Muno. But nobody’s come to a decision yet.

“I think getting Superfund is the only way we’ll get cleanup,” says Mardi Klevs, the Greater Chicago Urban Initiatives manager for the U.S. EPA. “We’ve spent years trying to get alternative sources of funding for this site. We’re hoping it will be paid for by the polluters, but the only way we’ll get them to the table is putting it on the NPL list. You lose your leverage to bring together PRPs unless there’s some legal threat hovering over them. Otherwise, why should they do it?”

Crivello, for one, is frustrated that the mayor and the city have not supported the listing. He’s passionate about redeveloping the area surrounding the cluster site for use by nature lovers and bird-watchers–there are already plans to build a nature center in an undeveloped area nearby–and he sees inclusion on the NPL as crucial to this process. “The city’s proud of not having a Superfund site,” he says. “It’s an ego thing. If they keep waiting to get more people’s opinions, like they say they’re doing, nothing will ever get done.”

Crivello is a member of a group of local residents and environmentalists who have been working for over a decade to get the area cleaned up. That team is part of the Calumet Cluster Site Work Group, a coalition that started meeting in 1993. The coalition also includes members of the Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF) and some Chicago-Kent College law students, led by environmental law professor Keith Harley. The coalition has pressured the city, the IEPA, and the U.S. EPA to find a way to clean up the site and met with citizens to solicit ideas. In 1996 a group of citizens came up with the innovative idea of treating the parcels as one site–a “cluster site”–as opposed to individual sites, according to Klevs. The genius of this tactic, which Klevs hasn’t seen tried before, is that while the parcels may be considered bad enough individually, as a group they’re much more persuasive, showing just how extensive the pollution in the area is and how dire the need for remediation. Klevs says the level of grassroots activism and cooperation from government agencies could make the cluster site an unprecedented Superfund success story.

“I can’t emphasize the incredibly important role of the local residents–they have been so patient, so inspiring,” says Klevs. “What’s really made this process different than most other Superfund sites is how we developed a very nice partnership with SETF, the other environmental groups in the area, the IEPA, the city, and the U.S. EPA. It’s unusual in that a large number of government agencies and partners from the community have been working on this site for such a long time.”

If they have their way, the mess that now makes up the cluster site will be turned into one of the last places in the region where people can enjoy the never-developed indigenous wetlands and forest that surround the contaminated plots. Plans are in the works to contain and seal the worst-polluted areas and remediate less-contaminated parcels, then adorn the area surrounding the cluster site with a nature center, trails, viewing boxes, and other facilities Chicagoans can use to enjoy the outdoors. While some parts of the cluster site will probably never be open for public use, if they are remediated adequately they’ll be prevented from seeping contamination into the surrounding open space and nature reserves, which, according to EPA officials, will then be completely safe for public enjoyment.

A design was recently chosen for the proposed Ford Calumet Environmental Center after an international contest that drew more than 100 entries. The winning plan, by Studio Gang Architects, led by Mark Schendel and Jeanne Gang, has been described as a glass building encased in a metal nest, with ecologically sound plumbing and energy systems.

“This could really be something,” says Crivello, wading onto the muddy banks of a nontoxic lagoon near the cluster site to get a closer look at some herons standing regally in the reeds. “People have forgotten what used to be here before the city was built, but this is one of the last remaining pieces. I can see people hiking, canoeing, bike trails. This is a way to get back in touch with nature. Everyone should be able to enjoy this.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.