Soil and rubble, toil and trouble | Bleader

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Soil and rubble, toil and trouble

Posted By on 05.13.09 at 07:34 AM

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Virginia Rugai, chair of the City Council’s energy and environment committee, wanted to clarify an important point for the record Tuesday before aldermen began reviewing a proposal to allow the reuse of soil and rubble dug up in city construction projects.

While it was true the measure had been tabled three times before, and while it was true that its vehement opponents on all sides of the political spectrum had said all sorts of bad things about it (dubbing it “the toxic dirt ordinance”), and while it was true that some of those opponents had bombarded members of the committee with automated phone calls, Rugai insisted that delays in passing the proposal had nothing to do with political pressure, as a certain unnamed reporter had written.

Rugai said that last month she had decided on her accord that the plan needed a fourth round of revisions in order to satisfy her colleagues and make sure community leaders across Chicago wouldn’t be freaked out or angry that the council had passed something that critics dubbed—quite incorrectly, mind you—“the toxic dirt ordinance.”

“I had decided to hold this long before our offices received hundreds of robocalls using inflammatory language,” she declared. “I’d asked for revisions long before those calls came. I just wanted to make a note of that.”

With the note made, Rugai and other committee members were able to proceed with the business at hand: making sure the proposal had finally been rewritten in such a way that aldermen wouldn’t be blamed if people in their wards ever got pissed off about it again.

After all, the aldermen didn’t need to be persuaded that the plan, crafted and pushed by the Daley administration, had lots of advantages. It would cut down on the emissions of trucks that now have to take construction-generated dirt to landfills downstate, and on trucks that bring replacement dirt from rural areas to the city. It would preserve landfill space. It would save money.

Unfortunately, after generations of heavy industrial activity, Chicago's soil is almost always contaminated with something. Environmental officials say that doesn’t mean it’s dangerous to reuse, especially if it’s going to be piled under a new road or sewer line. And under this plan anything that would end up on the site of a school or park would undergo testing to make sure it met the strictest state pollution standards . . .

But what if people see that the city technically allows the reuse of soil that contains even tiny amounts of harmful chemicals? Will they understand that those trace amounts are “safe” according to federal and state guidelines? Or could this become campaign fodder, or simply the source of those more routine community uproars that are such a pain in the ass for aldermen?

Suzanne Malec-McKenna, commissioner of the city’s environment department, noted that the latest version of the ordinance ensures that aldermen have the chance to veto any particular plan to reuse soil or rubble in their wards--an addition made in response to concerns raised in earlier discussions of the ordinance. Playing the lawyer that he is, alderman Ed Burke insisted the language be stronger and more specific.

Just when it seemed that might do the trick, a representative for the Illinois EPA noted that there was a typo in the ordinance. It was no big deal—a number had to be changed so that the plan didn’t accidentally allow dangerous levels of arsenic in soil used in parks or school grounds.

Aldermen found this rather disconcerting.

“If we ever face an opponent and they find out that we allowed the transfer of arsenic into our wards, we are going to get it,” Burke said. “I want to know before soil with arsenic or perc is transferred into my ward. Can you imagine what would happen if a PTA or local park council got wind of this?”

Burke, of course, hasn't faced an opponent in 38 years, but he appeared genuinely indignant at the idea that dangerous chemicals exist, that some of his proposals to try to curtail them had never advanced in the City Council, and that any of this could stir up trouble on the home front. “Has anyone been through this with a fine-toothed comb?” he asked Malec-McKenna. “The devil really is in the details.”

She assured him that it had been combed repeatedly and reiterated that passing it was critical. “This has been a long process, but we think this type of investment of time is absolutely worth it. Other cities are watching us to see what we do on this issue.”

"You should also be willing to hear objections from aldermen," Burke informed her. He insisted on several more wording changes and a law department review of portions of the ordinance. Since she didn't want the matter held again, Malec-McKenna had no choice but to agree to everything he said.

Then Burke got up and left.

In his absence, the committee passed the measure on the condition that the administration add the changes he’d suggested. It will probably be approved by the full council Wednesday.

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