The Carnotite Reduction Company site near Bronzeville. Map: OpenStreetMap
A recently-issued building permit on 26th Street just east of King Drive in the Prairie Shores neighborhood of the Near South Side community area (near Bronzeville) caught my eye.
Installation of temporary wood poles and aerial cable, to powering air monitors, for the Carnotite Reduction Company site project
Carnotite wasn’t a word I’ve heard before, and “Carnotite Reduction Company” isn’t a business I’ve heard of before, either.
I searched Bing and found that 4 of the 5 results were about cleaning up a contaminated site, and one of the results was a letter in PDF form hosted on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website prepared by a scientist at the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The letter is 11 pages long and tells the story about Carnotite Reduction Company, which had a factory in 1915 on what’s now known as the Michael Reese Hospital site, the buildings of which have all been demolished.
The Carnotite Co. mainly produced radium, along with some uranium and vanadium as byproducts.
The Carnotite Co. owned and operated mines in Colorado and Utah. In 1919, it was one of four companies that mined 95% of the carnotite ore produced in Colorado. The U.S. dominated the world radium market until 1922, when Belgium began using pitchblende ore from the Belgian Congo. The pitchblende was 40 to 100 times more pure than carnotite, and by 1923, Belgian competition ended carnotite ore processing in the U.S.
This article from the “Chicago Chemical Bulletin” publication in 1917 linked on the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s website about the cleanup project describes carnotite ore and mining process. They’ve cataloged this site as EPA ID# ILN000510371.
The letter describes where radioactive, contaminated soil was found during boring tests made within the last three years, and how it potentially got there. The factory was extracting radium there, for an exploding cancer research trend, until 1920.
The company, the EPA believes, may have disposed its waste into public infrastructure.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) suspects that the Carnotite Co. may have sent this liquid waste into the sewer, floor drains, or reintroduced it into the process for further refining. Because streets in the area, including Inglehart Court, were abandoned during the redevelopment in the 1950s and 1960s, sewers running along those abandoned streets likely also were abandoned. Other options for liquid waste disposal commonly used at the time included streams or ditches (with Lake Michigan in the vicinity), waste ponds, dug wells, and dumping wastes on porous ground (such as the sand on-site).
When the City of Chicago was preparing the site in 2009 for a potential Olympic Village for its 2016 Olympic Games bid – buying the property for an insane amount of cash and then razing it all, while eventually losing the bid to Rio de Janeiro – conducted “Phase I and Phase II environmental investigations” but didn’t survey for radiological contamination and didn’t uncover an important survey from 30 years prior.
The Illinois Department of Public Health found radioactive contamination after a “radiological surface survey” of the Michael Reese hospital site in 1979.
The IDPH Division of Radiological Health concluded that the contamination did not pose an immediate health threat, but should be taken into account before any future construction. In 1979, IDPH did not notify USEPA about the contamination they found.
The Illinois Emergency Management Agency surveyed the site in August 2009 and found the contamination, alerted the EPA, and met with the City of Chicago to discuss remediation.
The letter details further testing by AECOM, a global transportation, infrastructure, and engineering company, the levels of contamination, and risk assessment. It appears that the contamination won’t be a danger to most people.
The Illinois Department of Public Health concludes that exposure at the Carnotite Co. site to the area with the greatest surface radium and uranium concentration for 20 minutes per day, five days per week, 250 days per week, for 50 years is not expected to harm people’s health. IDPH considers this to be a maximum likely exposure scenario, given current conditions at the site.
It notes that a change in land use – the site is currently occupied by vacant hardscape, tennis courts, a park, sidewalks, and grassy areas – “could increase exposure duration”, especially if housing was built here.
The City of Chicago applied for a license in 2013 to temporarily store radioactive material on site before shipping it to a disposal facility. The EPA last updated its website in April 2014 to say that it was considering this application.