Lurking beneath the surface of the West Branch of the DuPage River are the remnants of radioactive contamination left behind by a factory that was shuttered almost four decades ago.
The Rare Earths Facility in West Chicago not only was a major employer in its heyday, but also became the site of a large mound of discarded radioactive waste that locals called Mount Thorium.
The notorious impact the radiation from the factory had on the area eventually led to lengthy cleanups that have cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
The final phases of efforts to remediate the waste from Rare Earths are in sight, but officials say funding sources they have relied on in the past have dried up or are becoming increasingly uncertain due to changing priorities and congressional squabbling.
About $21 million is needed for work scheduled this year on the West Branch of the DuPage River and an adjacent creek, officials say. But more than a third of that is still up in the air.
"We are so close to being at the finish line," said John "Ole" Oldenburg, director of natural resources for the DuPage County Forest Preserve District, who has been working with Naperville, Warrenville and other local municipalities along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the cleanup since it began in 2005.
The waste was created from the 1930s to the 1970s by Rare Earths, which produced the radioactive element thorium for use in making lantern mantles as well as in developing the atomic bomb. Almost 40 years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, work is still needed to clean up the radioactive pollution Rare Earths left behind.
Thorium has been linked to cancer, especially if it is inhaled. But because the contamination in the river involves only trace amounts, the thorium does not pose an immediate public health risk, said Tim Fisher, project manager with the U.S. EPA. But officials believe it is important that the cleanup be completed.
Cleanup has occurred along 7 of the 8 river miles where thorium was identified, including Kress Creek and the West Branch of the DuPage River from the West Chicago Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant to the northern end of McDowell Grove County Forest Preserve in Naperville. Three sites remain: an area near Bower Elementary School in Warrenville, part of Kress Creek that runs under the Illinois Highway 59 bridge and a part of the forest preserve.
"This is a big mound of radioactive muck," said Jessi DeMartini, forest preserve ecologist, motioning to what was under a slow-moving expanse of the West Branch in Naperville.
What should be a gurgling, free-flowing waterway looks more like a small lake in McDowell Grove, where thorium pulled downstream by the current accumulated to taint the riverbed.
In a final phase of the Kress Creek/West Branch DuPage River Superfund cleanup, officials expect to close McDowell Grove in April. The plan is to dig a trench through the parking lot and temporarily redirect the river so workers can excavate a great mass of radioactive sediment.
The river and creek constitute one of four sites in DuPage County designated by the federal government as Superfund sites, all of which were left in the wake of the Rare Earths Facility. Work at two of the sites has been completed, and remediation efforts continue at the site of the factory.
Regulations were few
The story started in the 1930s, when the former Lindsay Light and Chemical Co. moved from downtown Chicago 30 miles west and built a 43-acre complex in the middle of West Chicago.
For about 40 years, until 1973 when the Rare Earths Facility closed, workers at the plant extracted the radioactive materials thorium, radium and uranium to be used in producing lantern mantles and developing the atomic bomb during the Manhattan Project in World War II.
The factory, which changed hands several times, was acquired in 1967 by Oklahoma-based Kerr-McGee Corp., an offshore drilling firm that now operates under the auspices of Anadarko Petroleum Corp.
At a time when environmental regulations on industry were few, operators at the Rare Earths Facility created an on-site pile of radioactive refuse and byproducts of the thorium-extraction process called mill tailings.
For years, the mill tailings with trace amounts of radiation were offered for free as landfill to anyone willing to haul the material away.