Toxic Acme site on Southeast Side picked for EPA Superfund cleanup

The former Acme Steel coke plant near 114th Street and Torrence Avenue should be added to a list for cleanup under the federal Superfund program, the administration of President Joe Biden said.

Brian Ernst/Sun-Times file

The long-abandoned Acme Steel coke plant on the Southeast Side poses “significant threats to human health and the environment” and should be cleaned up under the government’s Superfund program, President Joe Biden’s administration said.

The Acme site covers more than 100 acres and sits near the Big Marsh and Indian Ridge Marsh city parks on Torrence Avenue. The location was once used to produce the steel-making fuel coke for much of the last century but shut down operations more than two decades ago.

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Three years ago, the community group Southeast Environmental Task Force petitioned the government to take action on the toxic site so it could some day be reused.

“That site should’ve been a priority a long time ago,” said Peggy Salazar, the retired head of the Southeast Side group. “It stifles our community from moving forward.”

If officially added to the Superfund site, Acme could take a number of years to completely remediate.

Government officials said in a 2007 report that cancer-causing chemicals in the soil posed a health risk. Trespassers stirring up dirt could inhale the toxic materials, and this was particularly dangerous for children, the report said.

Cyanide and mercury are among the harmful chemicals and metals found through recent testing of the Acme soil, and surrounding areas used for fishing may be contaminated as well, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.

“The site threatens nearby surface water bodies, which include wetlands and areas sometimes used for fishing,” the EPA said in a statement Wednesday.

The Acme site is a relic of Chicago’s steel-making past and is one of hundreds of so-called brownfield former industrial areas that have been contaminated and vacant for years.

“This area of Chicago is already overburdened with legacy contamination,” EPA Regional Administrator Debra Shore said in a statement.

In 2020, the Cook County Land Bank Authority, which can take control of property that has been long abandoned, discussed use of more than a third of the Acme site for a proposed solar farm.

That project fell through because of issues related to the contamination, said Land Bank Executive Director Jessica Caffrey.

The land bank, which takes control of properties in hopes of putting them back on the tax rolls, is still the owner of the 36 acres at Acme that was being planned for the solar farm, and Caffrey said she’s hopeful that the EPA program will help provide clarity on reuse of the former industrial land.

“It will allow us an opportunity to really plan for this site,” Caffrey said.

In a separate announcement this week, the EPA said it is also adding the Federated Metals site in Hammond, Indiana, to a priority list under the Superfund program, which was started in 1980 to clean up hazardous waste sites abandoned by their former owners.

Federated Metals operated a smelting and refining operation for almost 50 years on the shore of Lake George, the EPA said.

Acme, which is recognizable by its two tall smokestacks, would join two other Chicago Southeast Side cleanup projects that are underway.

The so-called Schroud property was a steel-making waste disposal site on almost 70 acres near 126th and Avenue O. The EPA added Schroud to its Superfund list in 2019.

In 2010, the EPA added an almost 90-acre area of land where multiple toxic dumps operated near Lake Calumet.

The Superfund program has been “severely underfunded,” said Keith Harley, director of the environmental law program at Greater Chicago Legal Clinic, who pressed the EPA for the Acme site remediation as well as cleanup of the Schroud and Lake Calumet areas.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, signed by Biden in 2021, provided $3.5 billion for Superfund. According to the EPA, that money is helping address a backlog of toxic sites across the country that need to be cleaned up.

The agency began a 60-day process Thursday to accept public comment about the Acme site. If approved for the program, a more thorough investigation of the contamination and public health risks will be conducted, an EPA spokeswoman said.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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