Chicago: the greenest city *snicker*

Based on the frequency of news coverage about polluted soil or buildings in Chicago, you might think there really isn’t much of that here. After all, only a single EPA National Priorities List site exists in Chicago. But it was tough to get listed because the city would rather not have those blemishes on its record.

And cleanups of pollution happen all the time, all over the city, as the map below shows when you zoom into Chicago. Have there have been any near your house or workplace in recent years? The key below explains the different colored pins.

BLUE: Federal CERCLA (“Superfund”) sites in Illinois that are on the National Priorities List. There is only one NPL site in Chicago, at Lake Calumet on the far south side. (Note: Except for the location of the Lake Calumet site, these pins are approximations based on the city associated with the listing.)

YELLOW: CERCLA cleanups that are NOT on the NPL, whose city is listed as “Chicago.” Exact addresses were used in this case. These cases, as you’ll read below, are interesting.

TURQUOISE: “Non-voluntary” (usually court-mandated) cleanups performed or supervised by Illinois EPA. Again, exact addresses used.

A few disclosures after the break…

1. I plan to map those cleanups voluntarily done by responsible parties and supervised by the IEPA soon; they aren’t included.

2. I realize the yellow and turquoise pins only appear in Chicago, but those types of cleanups are done all over Illinois. I just haven’t mapped them.

3. US EPA data (blue and yellow pins) starts in 2004, and until I get more specific time data, it’s possible cleanup on some of these sites was finished as early as 2004 or 2005. I don’t know how far back the Illinois EPA data starts. All this to say, don’t assume you’ve been poisoned because you moved nearby last year. I only use this map to say, “cleanups of pollution ARE happening in the city, despite the impression from the media.” I’ll determine the exact frequency later.

Another big point is that these sites’ lack of inclusion on the NPL doesn’t make them any less harmful to human health. That is to say, they could be absolutely tragic and not even be considered for the list. According to U.S. EPA, the primary consideration for inclusion is how much money it’ll cost to clean up.

Unfortunately, that has a lot to do with the size of the site—hundreds of acres costs more to clean up than one acre—but not much to do with impact to human health. A one acre lot bordered on three sides by apartments can do a lot worse damage than a hundred-acre site where no one goes.

Granted, the cleanup gets done quicker when a site’s cleanup cost is low. Less paperwork. (NPL listing takes a lot of hoops to jump through sometimes.) Taken this way, it “doesn’t make sense” to put a site near people on the NPL, as an EPA officer put it. But the downside is that no one finds out about the clean ups. I’m in the process of investigating just how often and to what extent the word gets out about these sites, but I don’t think it’s often, and I don’t think it’s extensive.

I don’t know if that’s the media’s fault or what. But I want to find out why, and then get the word out myself.

One idea is a map that changes with a sliding timeline. This presentation would show the lay of the city’s polluted sites progressing through their four stages: 1. polluted, 2. polluted but on an agency’s radar, 3. in the process of cleanup, 4. cleanup complete.

Editor’s note: this map and idea was originally expressed Dec. 6, 2010. The date above is the re-post of the current, updated map and more cogent prose.

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