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U.S. Rep seeks federal support for neglected State property
The residents of Tinley Park are left to wonder yet again when enough will finally be enough, as a new evaluation report detailing a December inspection of the abandoned Tinley Park Mental Health Center has raised new and renewed concerns over the neglected site.
The report, which was obtained earlier this month through a Freedom of Information Act request, indicated the Mental Health Center site — nearly 280 acres, located along 183rd Street and Harlem Avenue, and made up of around 45 structures — is rife with hazardous materials, while evidence also suggests people have used a portion of the property for shelter despite its current state.
The Village has long contended, with documentation from a 2014 hazardous materials survey, that there are as many as 95 drums of hazardous materials on the site — which includes underground tunnels, 10 underground fuel storage tanks, five above-ground storage tanks, three landfills, 22 state-owned transformers and a lime pit — with hundreds more containers filled with hazardous materials and buildings filled with asbestos.
What was discovered
Nancy O’Connor is the Tinley Park resident who submitted the FOIA request that yielded the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency report regarding the Dec. 17-18 inspection. She and many residents have been concerned about the site for years. For her, the report validates those concerns.
“This is far worse than I think anybody realizes,” O’Connor said. “I think our EPA knows: It has to be cleaned.”
O’Connor said the site is rife with asbestos, black mold, possible mercury leakage on the ground, along with other hazards.
“There are 122 barrels of unknown, unmarked contaminants on the property,” she said. “Three dozen of them are outside. They are not secured inside the building — and buildings are not that secure anyway.”
According to the IEPA report, “a multi-media site inspection was conducted.” The report stated that the last inspection took place in November 2016.
The December evaluation involved not only representatives from the IEPA but also the chief engineer of the Mental Health Center and representatives from the Illinois Department of Public Health — though the report noted that Department of Public Health officials did not participate on the second day.
“The inspection was conducted pursuant to a special request from Springfield, following a citizen’s complaint,” per the report. “Several environmental areas of concern were observed and noted by the Agency’s inspectors.”
According to the report, the inspectors did not enter many of the buildings because of “the presence of asbestos-containing material” or in some instances because of visible black mold.
But one of the inspectors had a respirator and was able to enter and observe the state of several of the buildings. In one of these instances, in the Water Treatment Plant, the inspector observed three pallets of aluminum sulfate, broken bags of potash, four dozen cans of paint thinner and old fluorescent bulbs still installed in the ceiling.
In the Transportation Building and Garage, the inspectors found metal drums containing oil and a plastic drum containing waste antifreeze, as well as 10-20 scrap tires on the floor. Also found in the building were paint cans, about 25 used fluorescent light bulbs stored on the floor, and propane tanks. On the second floor, inspectors found eight plastic 55-gallon drums — most of which were not labeled, but two were marked as containing lithium bromide.
In a tunnel between two of the buildings — Oak Hall and Maple Hall — inspectors reported finding “rolled up comforters and other bedding in the tunnel that suggested the tunnel has been used as a shelter by vagrants.”
In the summary of observed areas of concern, the inspectors noted “most drums were unlabeled and not all were stored closed.” It also stated that there was asbestos-containing material “located throughout all of the buildings on site.”
In an attachment to the report, one of the inspectors wrote, “It should be noted that much of the [suspect asbestos-containing materials] across the property is in poor condition, including some usually non-friable materials, such as floor tile and mastic, due to age, lack of maintenance, and exposure to weathering/water.
“There were also many below-grade sections of buildings and tunnels running under large sections of the property. These areas are nearly all submerged due to lack of running pumps and looting of rooftop drain-system copper.”
This report comes five years after the Village commissioned a survey of the land that identified these environmental concerns and more.
In 2014, Tetra Tech — a consulting and engineering firm — examined the Mental Health Center and produced a wetland analysis, a hazardous materials survey and a cost estimate as to what it would take to remediate the site. Tetra Tech estimated it would cost approximately $12.39 million to clean the site.
The Hazardous Material Survey noted that the firm “observed various types of oils, chemicals, paints and cleaning chemicals stored throughout many of the buildings, with missing labels in some cases.” The report also stated that outside of the Cedar Hall building, “a pile of broken fluorescent light bulbs” was observed and that it was “likely that these bulbs contained mercury vapor, which was released when broken.”
Waiting for answers
In November 2019, the Village of Tinley Park sent a letter requesting the IEPA act at the site.
“The State of Illinois walked away from this property, its structures and all its contents in 2012,” according to the letter. “The State of Illinois left the property unsecured with no fencing, and has allowed brush and weeds to become overgrown, providing a natural cover to unauthorized entrants to the site. Theft, vandalism and litter on the site — and numerous videos loaded onto YouTube of the site — are evidence of such entry. Furthermore, the State of Illinois has not reported the site’s hazardous chemical inventory.”
The letter stated that the failure to act upon these hazards has created a “threat of imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment.”
“The Village asks you to act immediately to secure the site with fencing and a locked gate, remove the overgrowth, contain the friable asbestos, prevent migration of hazardous substances through stormwater and remove the hazardous materials,” the letter requested of the State.
Reached by phone on Thursday, Feb. 6, Tinley Park Village Manager David Niemeyer said the IEPA notified the Village that it was sending surveyors out to the Mental Health Center site prior to the Dec. 17-18 inspection. But he said it was not until O’Connor sent him the IEPA report that he was aware of what was noted during the inspection.
“The report kind of speaks for itself,” Niemeyer said. “It’s really disturbing — I guess that’s the nice way of saying it. We’re obviously glad they did [the inspection]. Now, we want to hear what their plan for action is to clean it up.”
Niemeyer said the Village is actively trying to set up a meeting with IEPA to learn those answers.
“The site has been vacant for 10 years, and it is in the middle of our town,” Niemeyer said. “The fact that something like this has fallen into this level of environmental problems and disrepair is really horrible. We just want it cleaned up. The fact that it has taken this long just to get a report is not acceptable. We want them to take action right away.”
He said it is frustrating to the Village, because a developer recently had plans for the site that included funds to completely remediate the site if the State agreed to sell the land. But after a Chicago Tribune article mentioned the developer as having possible ties to a reputed mobster, the Village received a letter from Central Management Services stating that the department did not intend to sell the land to the Village.
“That was their call, but we had a plan to clean [the site] up,” Niemeyer said.
Niemeyer said the Village was sent another letter from CMS earlier this year, reiterating that the department would not be selling the land at this time. CMS Chief Operating Officer Ayse Kalaycioglu confirmed this to The Tinley Junction on Friday, Feb. 7.
As the Village’s attempts to clean up the property have been stymied at every level, Niemeyer said it is now time for the State to fix the site.
“The problems are only going to get worse,” he said. “It’s very clear what needs to happen. The report outlined where the problems are at. Those problems need to be addressed.”
Niemeyer said he realizes not everything can be fixed right away, but he wants to see action now — not in two or three years.
“Let’s start to clean up some of the worst areas,” he said. “That’s really the action we are going to be insisting upon.”
Meanwhile, after receiving the IEPA report from O’Connor, Tinley Park Trustee Michael Glotz sent a letter on Feb. 4 to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, State and federal legislators, CMS, and both the U.S. and Illinois Environmental Protection Agencies. In it, he requested help from the governmental entities to address the problems at the Mental Health Center.
“The Village believes that the results detailed in the IEPA report create an immediate concern for the health, safety and welfare of the Village and its residents,” Glotz wrote.
His letter further states that the Village has been actively working since 2012 “to remediate the environmental concerns” at the site and to “revitalize the property into productive use for the Village and its residents.”
Glotz stated that despite not receiving any help from previous State administrations to clean up the site, he thinks the Mental Health Center area can become an “economic catalyst towards the revitalization of the Southland.”
Reached by phone on Feb. 5, Glotz said one of his biggest concerns about the site — for both the residents or any first responders who could potentially be dispatched there in an emergency — is the number of unmarked barrels containing unknown chemicals and fluids.
“We don’t know what is on that site,” Glotz said. “So, for the safety of our first responders, I’m concerned about all the stuff that is there if, God forbid, something happens. That would put our firemen in a very difficult position.
“There is no water on site, and, in the event of a rescue, there’s too many unknown conditions to attempt [one]. A lot of the roads are overgrown with weeds, and the roads are in bad shape. We don’t know if the roofs are structurally sound. There are no material safety data sheets, and there are broken mercury bulbs all over the ground.
“I would be scared for their safety to enter any of the buildings under those conditions.”
An expert weighs in
Michael Greenberg, a distinguished professor and former dean at Rutgers University, said he has worked on some of the worst contaminated sites in the country. To him, security at the Mental Health Center site is paramount.
“The longer you leave it unguarded and unsecured, the larger the probability increases that something really bad is going to happen,” Greenberg said.
He suggested constructing a fence around the site and having security patrol the area on a regular basis to deter anyone from entering the property.
“If nobody can gain access to it, it’s [just] an eye-sore — which I know the neighbors don’t like and the town doesn’t want,” Greenberg said. “But the first thing is to protect human health and safety. And that means denying access.”
Greenberg said the second step would be to systematically go through each of the structures to find out the exact amount of hazardous materials in every area in order to prioritize which buildings should be remediated first.
“It has to be done very thoughtfully and carefully,” Greenberg said.
While Greenberg said the situation at the Mental Health Center did not yet sound like an emergency, it could become one if people can easily gain access and if no action is taken to remediate the structures.
“The longer you let it go, the bigger the economic cost of solving the problem, and the greater the chance of a fire and a major spill,” he said.
Kalaycioglu issued a statement on behalf of the department in response to questions from The Tinley Junction regarding the security at the Mental Health Center, the possible hazards at the site, and uncertainty from residents and the Village regarding what was being done to fix the issues there.
“The Department of Central Management Services takes all health and safety concerns very seriously,” the statement reads. “CMS issued a lock-down policy for the property in November 2019, limiting access for the health and safety of all. Only CMS staff or CMS-approved visitors are allowed on the property with personal protective equipment. The department contracts with a security company to patrol the property. In addition, CMS is working closely with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency on an ongoing basis to assess the conditions on-site and properly address any findings.”
In response to a follow-up question, Kalaycioglu said the security team performs daily monitoring of the site.
Requests for comment from IEPA officials were not returned as of press time.
U.S. Reps seeks federal involvement
The emotion O’Connor said she most feels when thinking about the current state of the abandoned Mental Health Center is anger.
“I’m angry that the State of Illinois not only allowed this to take place … but [also] that they’ve continued to ignore it,” she said. “They know it is an environmental hazard. They know it is a health risk.”
She also suggested that the State is playing by a different set of rules.
“If this were a private-owned property, the IEPA and the State of Illinois would have requirements that the private company would have to follow or there would be heavy fines against them,” O’Connor said. “So, why isn’t the State of Illinois held to that same standard? Why can they ignore the IEPA and a private company can’t? It’s wrong.
“We shouldn’t have to fight this hard to get hazardous property cleaned up in the very center of our town.”
But help may soon be on the way, as a federal politician is getting involved.
On Friday, Feb. 7, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-1) sent a letter to the U.S. EPA asking for it to respond to the problems at the Mental Health Center site. In the letter, Rush criticized the IEPA’s handling of the inspection.
“Despite knowing the concerns that have been expressed by community members, the IEPA evaluation team did not undertake proper precautions and were, therefore, unable to conduct a thorough and legitimate evaluation,” the letter stated. “Nevertheless, even their limited evaluation found widespread asbestos and black mold contamination.”
Rush’s letter stated that the EPA has stepped in to oversee remediation efforts in the past, including an effort to clean up an area in Crestwood.
“While it is unfortunate that EPA must once again step in to correct inaction at the State level, we must not let jurisdictional issues prevent us from doing what is right: protecting the American people from environmental hazards, no matter where they live,” the statement reads.
UPDATE as of Feb. 12:
As of the morning of Feb. 12, Rush had yet to receive a response from the EPA, according to Jeremy Edwards, communications director for the congressman.
While there is no set timeline for Rush’s next move regarding the Tinley Park Mental Health Center, Edwards said the congressman will follow up with the EPA if a response is not given in a timely manner and “do what’s necessary to get answers for his constituents.”
Asked when and why the congressman decided to get involved in the situation at the Mental Health Center, Edwards said Rush “took action immediately after he was notified of the issue, and we have been in touch with the constituents involved in this effort within days of it being sent to our office.”
Edwards said the decision by Rush to take it to the U.S. EPA was “prompted by Illinois EPA’s failure to act.”
UPDATE as of Feb. 19:
Rep. Daniel Lipinski sent a letter to Andrew Wheeler and Kurt Thiede of the U.S. EPA on Feb. 13. In the letter, Lipinski stated that “action to remediate this site is necessary to return it to a condition safe for use by the community.”
In his letter, Lipinski stated that while “many states, including Illinois” regulate programs designed to keep the public safe from asbestos, the U.S. EPA “ultimately has the responsibility of protecting human health and the environment.” Further, he stated that “lack of sufficient attention to the site necessitates action and oversight” by the federal agency.
“The U.S. EPA has strong technical expertise that I am requesting be leveraged to assist [the Illinois] EPA in conducting a thorough investigation of hazards on the property and developing a plan to return this site to use for the community,” Lipinski wrote.
As of Feb. 19, the congressman had yet to receive a reply from the U.S. EPA regarding his letter and questions he posed to the agency, according to Phil Davidson, communications director for Lipinski. Asked what the congressman’s plan was if there was no response by Feb. 28 – the deadline date for which Lipinski asked for response back from the U.S. EPA – Davidson said the congressman’s office will continue to follow up.
Additionally, Davidson said the congressman’s office sent Illinois EPA Director John Kim a copy of the letter.
“The Illinois EPA is a state agency under the direction of Gov. Pritzker,” Davidson said. “Congress does not have oversight over state agencies, but Congressman Lipinski will continue to keep the state informed of actions he’s taking at the federal level.”
Davidson said the congressman also sent copies of his letter to State Rep. Debbie Meyers-Martin, Tinley Park Mayor Jacob Vandenberg and the Village of Tinley Park Board of Trustees.
“The congressman’s environmental policy staff has also been in contact with the offices of State Sen. Michael Hastings and U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush to work on a solution,” Davidson said. “This is an issue that is going to require collaboration between elected officials and the community to raise awareness about the need for remediation and [to] ensure that the public’s health and safety is protected.”