Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The dirt on dirt

Posted By on 02.10.09 at 10:44 AM

Chicago is the kind of place where there are laws regulating whether you can dig up a pile of dirt and use it to fill a hole down the street, and where any talk of changing them sets off political squabbles and negotiations involving millions of dollars.

Literally. The City Council’s environment committee met Monday to consider a proposed ordinance that would allow the city to reuse some of the excess soil and construction rubble produced by things like building roads and laying water lines. Right now it can’t, and a powerful waste industry group doesn’t think it should. It’s just the latest clash between the administration of a “green” mayor used to getting his way and a business interest that, depending on details and timing, could either suffer or profit greatly from environmental initiatives he’s pushing.

“The reuse agreement is significant for the economic and environmental benefits it would bring,” said Suzanne Malec-McKenna, the city’s environment commissioner.

“I think a city that prides itself on being green would be making a mistake to be creating more brownfields,” countered Richard Trzupek, a chemist hired as a consultant by the National Solid Wastes Management Association.

After generations of industrial activity, the top three feet of earth across most of Chicago is polluted enough that state law restricts what can be done with anything that’s dug up. (The main contaminant is a group of chemicals known as PNAs or PAHs.) Currently the tons of excess dirt, bricks, asphalt, and rocks generated by construction projects are loaded onto trucks and hauled to landfills, where the city or private developer pays to have them buried. Whenever any new earth is needed for another project, “virgin” material—usually soil excavated from downstate farmland—has to be purchased and trucked in.

City and state environmental officials say they’ve been working for more than three years on a plan to save money, fuel emissions, and landfill space by reusing at least some of the soil and rubble that tests prove to be safe.

Malec-McKenna said her department oversaw a 2007 trial run during projects at the CTA, park district, and city transportation and water departments: by reusing clay and rubble that met state environmental standards, the different agencies saved more than $100,000 in disposal fees on top of the environmental benefits of not burning fuel or taking up room in a landfill. She estimated that with the new regulations the city could save about $12,000 on every mile of water mains it puts down and $72,000 for every new library it builds.

The new ordinance would only allow the city to reuse soil and rubble, but if it worked private companies would eventually be able to as well.

Some aldermen had questions about safety--or at least about taking the fall for any lapses in it. “I don’t want contaminated soil coming into my ward, because if it comes down the pipeline, we, the aldermen, will be blamed for it,” said the Ninth Ward’s Anthony Beale. Others, led by council dean Ed Burke, demanded that the ordinance require they be notified of any project in their ward reusing dirt or rubble. Malec-McKenna promised that only materials that met state standards would be used and agreed to Burke’s revisions.

But it was Trzupek who raised the biggest stink. “At first blush I think it’s a great deal and I wonder, ‘How do my clients get a piece of this?’” he said.

He then went on to argue that on the one hand private companies should also be covered under the new rules, and on the other that the new rules would result in the spread of contaminated soil. The city, he said, shouldn’t be allowed to conduct the testing that determines whether it can save itself money. "When you put the fox in charge of the hen house you're always in danger of losing the hens," he said. “I don’t find the testing adequate and I don’t find the oversight adequate.”

Aldermen didn’t appear to find his arguments adequate. “So the National Solid Wastes Management Association includes all of the biggest firms in the industry?” Burke asked.

Trzupek said that’s probably accurate.

“And were you paid to come here today and testify?”

“Yes, I was.”

“Thank you.”

As Trzupek sat down, Malec-McKenna stood up and said he was wrong about the dangers of contaminants. There were no further questions. The meeting was adjourned with promises that the ordinance would be taken up again soon—with the aldermen’s suggestions incorporated.

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