Just like plants, buildings need clean soil from which to grow.
It’s a problem becoming ever more common in suburban areas when businesses such as gas stations and dry cleaners depart, leaving behind contaminated land.
Darien has its own pair of tainted lots along Cass Avenue, just north of Plainfield Road. Environmental issues continue to plague both the former BP site at Cass and 75th as well as land below the adjacent Heritage Plaza.
The issues are just one of the factors that have slowed redevelopment of the that comprises three lots purchased between 2006 and 2008.
Each of the parcels has at various points suffered environmental contamination significant enough to warrant Illinois EPA intervention. Gas stored in underground tanks leaked into the land below both the Shell station that once sat at the north end and the BP station on the south. Dry cleaning fluid seeped into the earth below the old Darien Cleaners shop in Heritage Plaza.
“It’s been a very, very, very long and complicated process,” Assistant City Administrator Scott Coren said. “I have 10 very large binders full of documents.”
So far only one site—the Shell lot at Cass and 75th that —has gotten a clean bill. The land received a no-further-remediation letter (NFR) clearing it for development in November 2002.
The environmental situation in Darien is not unusual, said Greg Bedalov, president and CEO of the economic development group Choose DuPage.
“It happens all over the place,” he said. “It’s very common, especially with gas stations and dry cleaners.”
There were 1,759 gasoline-contaminated sites in DuPage County in 2008, according to IEPA records compiled by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP). (The number includes leaks at sites other than gas stations that have their own tanks, including municipal facilities.)
Virtually every gas station in Darien has experienced a leak from an underground storage tank at some point during the past 25 years, IEPA records show.
When gas gets into the soil, the vapors can evaporate, creating an inhalation hazard for people who live and work in the immediate area.
While the long-term effects of gasoline exposure are unknown, the Illinois Department of Health said short-term exposure causes symptoms ranging from throat irritation and headaches to confusion and vomiting. Some individual components of gasoline, including benzene, are carcinogenic.
The middle site, where Heritage Plaza still stands, sits above a plume of chemicals that leached from a dry cleaner into the soil.
“Dry cleaner sites are really notorious for having chemical and environmental problems on them because of the harsh chemicals,” Coren said.
All it takes is for the chemical perchloroethylene, an element of dry-cleaning fluid commonly known as PERC, to spill on the business’ floor. It can then seep through the foundation and into the ground.
Like gasoline, PERC evaporates into the air when it’s present in the soil. Short-term exposure can cause dizziness, headaches and skin irritation, the EPA said. Lab studies have shown that long-term inhalation can lead to kidney and liver damage, as well as cancer.
PERC contamination is so common and costly to clean up that Illinois has a fund dedicated to supporting remediation efforts. The fund is financed by a tax on dry cleaning chemicals.
“Essentially if dry cleaners had to (pay cleanup costs), they’d all be bankrupted because it’s so expensive,” Coren said. The fund is covering all of Darien’s roughly $123,000 in cleanup costs on the Heritage Plaza site, he said.
Mayor Kathleen Weaver has repeatedly cited the environmental issues as one factor that encouraged the city to purchase the properties.
“At the outset when the city decided to purchase the property, we knew no developer would bundle the three properties together in one development because of the environmental issues on the three properties,” she wrote in response to a Patch question about during the 2011 mayoral election.
Bedalov said that while environmental issues aren’t necessarily a deal killer, they can temper interest in properties because of the expense and time associated with cleaning them up.
“There are lost opportunity costs for a developer (who takes on remediation),” he said. “Every month that goes by is another month they’re not putting a shovel in the ground and they’re not collecting revenue.”
The bottom line is someone has to do the cleanup once the IEPA identifies a contaminated site, said Jason Navota, a senior planner with CMAP.
“It can be discouraging (to development) because the liability for cleanup can transfer to the new owner,” he said.
Often developers and property owners will build into sales contracts a clause that outlines who will deal with which costs, Bedalov said.
Darien included such an agreement in its contract with BP, Coren said. BP will coordinate and pay for removal of contaminated soils on its site when construction starts on Chase Bank. Chase has until June to close on the property.
When it’s time to build an access road to the construction site through the old BP land, Coren said the gas company will dig up the contaminated soil, dispose of it and replace it with clean soil.
Dovetailing removal efforts with actual construction is one way some property owners mitigate cleanup costs, Bedalov said.
"Oftentimes the contamination might be in top six inches of dirt," he said. "Costs that might be prohibitive are sunk costs anyway because you have to scrap the dirt anyway."
Oversight was another factor the city considered when purchasing the land, Coren said. City officials were confident that Darien would do a better job managing the remediation effort than a private developer.
“The problem with a private buyer is they usually purchase a property to develop it as quickly as possible,” he said. “As a government, we’re cleaning it correctly as opposed to flipping it or taking the easy way out.”
And the road hasn’t been easy, Coren said. The city has spent four years following IEPA instructions and sending the agency reports on the results.
“Less time is spent performing remediation and more time is spent reporting to make sure we’re doing the correct thing,” he said. Though in late November Coren predicted the Heritage site would receive an NFR within a month, as of Monday he said testing on the soil continues.
For this type of contaminated site, Bedalov said the old adage about doing the dirty work rings particularly true.
“At the end of the day, somebody’s got to clean it up before it’s redeveloped,” he said.