IL: Poisoning Suburb: Initial EPA tests say levels are unsafe

Daily Herald | DuPage County

poisoning suburb

Initial EPA tests say levels are unsafe

By Rupa Shenoy
Posted Saturday, July 21, 2007

A slow, steady rhythm of high-pitched beeps fills Sandy Riess’ West Chicago basement Friday morning as a technician swings a Geiger counter over the walls and floor.

Suddenly, as the instrument hovers over a circular sewer lid in the floor, the well-spaced chirps take on a fast-paced intensity, nearly becoming a single tone.

Technician Steve Shafer, of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency’s Division of Nuclear Safety, pries the lid loose with a screw, revealing a 3-foot-deep hole with a dirt bottom and brick-lined sides.

Federal Environmental Protection Agency health physicist Gene Jablonowski crouches close with a space age-looking device.

“It says it’s thorium,” he says.

Jablonowski immediately said the $20,000 instrument’s findings are unconfirmed, since it’s a prototype that wasn’t calibrated.

Still, the device showed levels that were “significantly elevated” over EPA standards, Riess said.

If correct, the findings will be the first evidence to validate new suspicions that the cancer-causing radioactive element thorium could remain on some residential properties in West Chicago.

By Friday afternoon, Riess said she was considering moving out of her house.

“I am terrified,” she said. “I can’t even breathe right now.”

Well-chewed dog toys rested on the floor a few feet away from the sewer lid. They had belonged to Riess’ two Saint Bernards, Oscar and Siren, ages 10 and 11, who played often in the basement until recently, when they died of bone cancer within a week of each another.

Riess’ property is one of 117 that may have been insufficiently cleaned of thorium in the 1980s by the company Kerr-McGee, which inadvertently distributed the substance throughout West Chicago over several decades.

Remaining trace amounts of the substance may not have been found in a second, more stringent 1990s cleanup, EPA officials first acknowledged in May.

The agency has known of that possibility since 2002 — but it was just a possibility until the unconfirmed readings taken Friday at Riess’ home.

Technicians took samples from the sewer hole that, after testing, will show whether the preliminary readings were correct.

Riess said her home’s previous owners, like many other residents, didn’t let the EPA test the basement during the 1990s clean up.

“Those people who didn’t get their basements tested, what’s in there?” she asked.

EPA spokesman Mick Hans said that numbers on how many basements had been tested wasn’t available.

“Everybody that gave us permission had their basements tested,” he said. “We tested lots and lots and lots of basements.”

At an intergovernmental meeting later in the day, EPA project manager Rebecca Frey said that, after meeting twice with West Chicago officials on the issues, her agency was finalizing letters to residents to better inform them.

The EPA is working with the city to develop a “consistent, objective,” and “uniform” approach to identifying which properties may need additional testing for thorium contamination, Frey said.

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