Kerr McGee: Is the danger over?

When will West Chicago finally be clear of thorium radiation?

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Photo by Savannah Epperson

Clean-up resumes at the former Kerr McGee site this fall.

By Savannah Epperson, Reporter

As the recent piles of dirt indicate, Kerr-McGee clean-up is set to start this fall. The final stage of thorium removal along Ann St. and W. Blair St. in West Chicago involves remediating the groundwater using 36 million dollars in funds allocated for the clean-up. 

On Aug. 24, the City of West Chicago published a press release concerning the site, indicating it was preparing for a “future park” at the location. That press release has since been removed. A member of the West Chicago City administration reached out, however. The city is planning on creating a park in the former Kerr-McGee lot in a few years.

“To get ready for this, the city will hire a park planning consultant. The planning will take a few months and include a significant amount of public input,” said Tom Dabareiner, Community Development Director for the city of West Chicago. 

The most recent clean-up of the soil ended in 2015. 

However the sheet piling that was initially installed to protect workers excavating contaminated soil now traps residual contaminants preventing the ground water from naturally diluting over time,” wrote Liuan Huska for Borderless Magazine in July. 

Cleanup continues at Kerr-McGee, the source of all the noise at WEGO as of late. (Photo by Savannah Epperson)

The damage of the company’s poor disposal practices continues to affect West Chicago and its residents, and may do so for generations to come. 

Lindsay Light was a company that created gaslight mantles, which were small fabric bags infused with Thorium or other metal nitrates that fitted over a gas source. The company manufactured these mantles for 30 years, and then Kerr-McGee purchased the company. They manufactured for another decade before it was discovered that the company had been dumping radioactive waste into the groundwater and soil surrounding the plant and three other primary areas

That is when it was brought to the attention of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency through a group called TAG, Thorium Action Group that formed in West Chicago and began petitioning for a cleanup of the radiation. The Hispanic community was not informed of the radiation, and after the Campbell Soup company sold their rental housing, they were forced to find homes. Realtors took the opportunity to sell the thorium-contaminated homes. They gave new residents deals on the homes, but never told the people who were to live there that there was thorium radiation in their homes, sandboxes, and the lakes that their children played in. Clean-up began in 1984. There was a video created about the issue that shows the original cleanup. 

 “The residents started to notice men dressed in anti-contamination suits cleaning up and testing various residential areas,” according to a thesis titled, Thorium Shipped out and Dust of Deceit Left behind in West Chicago, written by Lindsey Stern in the spring of 2016. 

The company was purchased by Anadarko Petroleum in 2006, which was later purchased by Occidental Petroleum in 2019. But have these companies turned over a new leaf? 

Occidental Petroleum’s mission statement is: “To develop energy resources safely, profitably, and responsibly.” 

The final remnants of the Kerr-McGee legacy, now in piles of dirt. (Photo by Savannah Epperson)

The Achuar indigenous people in Peru might disagree with Occidental Petroleum’s mission statement, as in 2013, the corporation settled out of court with the Peruvians. Occidental dumped toxic materials and spilled oil in several Achuar villages for over three decades. Similar to the way Kerr-McGee dumped radioactive waste into the groundwater and waterways of West Chicago. 

In addition to the 22 states affected by Kerr-McGee pollution, these companies have continued to be found guilty of oil spills and contamination within West Chicago and other towns within the 22 states affected, with no regard for the humans that live in the areas they contaminate. Many people are affected by this radiation and toxic chemicals their entire lives. 

A potential new park location for West Chicago? (Photo by Savan)

“These things have a half life of 14 million years,” said Professor of Engineering and Technology at Northern Illinois University, and former West Chicago resident, Dr. Theodore Hogan in reference to radiation. 

In other words, thorium exists in the human immune system for 28 million years.  

The people who live in these communities have suffered adverse effects their entire lives. They have no way to remove the radiation they were exposed to, and they often have no means of healing themselves and their communities. Human beings are forced to live with debilitating conditions and deformities for their entire lives because these companies chose to dump their toxic chemicals into their groundwater or soil. 

Hogan was a child when he was exposed to thorium in West Chicago, and has since spent his life learning about this radiation and the effects of it on the human body. 

“I’m still angry now,” said Hogan when asked about his own experience with radiation. 

The effects of the radiation that West Chicago has experienced can never truly be measured. That is clear with Hogan’s own reaction to questions about Thorium clean up. Even with the clean up going on, people will never be the same as before. 

Hogan also noted that the only way that anyone can truly help these communities move forward is to recognize that contamination happened, and to talk about it. He suggested it was important to give people a place to air their anger, grief, and confusion after their lives are turned upside down. 

To Kerr McGee, “You need to pay up. We need reparations for all the people who are suffering from chronic illnesses that you caused,” said Julieta Alcantar-Garcia, Founder of PODER, an organization that is built to stop environmental racism in the West Chicago community.