Brighton Park residents say city still has no clear plan to protect them from lead, other toxins identified in environmental report

Almost two months after the city released an environmental report revealing elevated levels of harmful toxins at a proposed migrant camp on 38th Street and California Avenue, residents said city officials have yet to provide a clear plan to address their escalating concerns about water safety in Brighton Park.

“The city knows that there’s lead in the water, and they’re allowing these residents just to continue to drink it when there are steps we can take until we replace the water lines,” said Richard Zupkus, a licensed sewer specialist who lives directly behind the contaminated lot on 38th Street.

Brighton Park community leaders began holding monthly meetings at The Church of God, a global nondenominational church on 38th Street, after the city’s plan to house migrants in the neighborhood fell through.

At the most recent community meeting last week, Paul Adamczyk, who also lives near the contaminated lot, said residents have not received lead testing kits, and that no timeline has been given for when they will be distributed.

In December, shortly after the environmental report was released, Ald. Julia Ramirez, whose ward includes Brighton Park and McKinley Park, said her office would send free lead testing kits to all homes near the site.

According to a statement Wednesday from William Drew Jr., Ramirez’s chief of staff, the 12th Ward office was unable to obtain lead testing kits to distribute previously because of a city policy requiring residents to independently request testing kits online or through 311.

Joel Vieyra, first deputy commissioner at the Chicago Department of Water Management, passed out flyers at the meeting explaining how residents can get free water testing kits mailed to their homes and identified resources for residents with broken or inefficient service lines.

Ramirez’s office is also distributing flyers with information on how to request a test.

Zupkus said he ordered a lead testing kit the following morning. But according to the city, residents may have to wait up to eight weeks for test results.

“These are people that are supposed to be watching out for our best interests,” Zupkus said. “You see over and over, it’s constant evidence that they don’t care about our well-being.”

While lead was the primary focus of the water department’s presentation at last week’s meeting, some residents said they are also concerned about the other contaminants mentioned in the environmental assessment, including manganese, arsenic and mercury.

“I would like the government to provide all the affected residents with some means to test our water, soil and air for all the heavy metals identified in the environmental report,” Adamczyk said. “Lead may be the primary culprit, or it may just be the easiest one to test for because the city is doing it already.”

According to a statement Wednesday from a spokesperson for Mayor Brandon Johnson, the community is not presently at risk from the contaminants discovered at the former industrial lot at 38th and California.

“The environmental testing results of the groundwater did not indicate a current risk to neighborhood residents, but our community engagement team continues to meet with Ald. Ramirez to respond to questions she has gathered from residents and hear additional community concerns,” the statement said.

The city originally planned to temporarily house close to 2,000 migrants in a winterized base camp at the 9-acre property. However, after the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency reviewed the environmental assessment, Gov. J.B. Pritzker halted plans to use the site to house migrants citing “serious environmental concerns” in a statement released by the governor’s office Dec. 5.

Adamczyk said the city had already begun installing a service line from the water main on 38th Street to the proposed migrant camp before the environmental testing was completed.

During the excavation, Adamczyk said all homes connected to the 38th Street main had their water shut off for a brief period. According to a flyer distributed to residents, those affected were advised to consistently flush out their pipes to reduce the risk of elevated lead levels.

“I’m concerned that by disturbing the soil, the workers may have released these heavy metals into the air or the water,” Adamczyk said.

A Brighton Park homeowner who lives adjacent to the vacant lot, Sofia Salinas, asked Vieyra whether the city has a plan to ensure those affected by the water shut-off are not harmed by the exposed contaminants.

“Did you guys have a plan in action to follow up with whoever you did give all those letters to? Because I was one of those people,” said Salinas, referring to the flyer.

Vieyra said if a lead testing kit shows elevated lead levels, the city will send a crew to investigate. However, there is no program in place for accelerated lead service line replacement, he said, except at day care facilities.

“Right now, we don’t have funding for that, but in the future that’s something we’re probably going to have to look at,” Vieyra said.

The city announced plans to replace Chicago’s 400,000 lead service lines in 2020 under then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration, after denying the dangers for decades. Now, after Johnson’s administration projected it will take up to 40 years and up to $12 billion to replace toxic lead service lines, city aldermen are looking for ways to speed up the process while driving down costs.

According to the World Health Organization, children are most at risk because high levels of lead exposure can severely damage the brain and central nervous system. Children who survive severe lead poisoning may have permanent intellectual disability and often experience behavioral disorders.

At last week’s meeting, Vieyra said it is likely Brighton Park residents’ pipes were exposed to lead before the city turned off the water because most homes in the area were built before 1986, the year Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act prohibiting the use of lead water pipes.

Byron Benion, a pastor for The Church of God who leads the community meetings, said he believes the city water department presented a reactionary plan at last week’s meeting that is insufficient in addressing the underlying issue.

“I think the solution that the city has of allowing everyone to test their own water is nice, but it seems like they don’t have a contingency plan for people who have bad water,” Benion said.

Benion said promptly testing the water of all residents affected by the excavation at the vacant lot is a top priority for him.

“I would like the people in our community to be really well-informed of what is going on with their water,” Benion said. “And even if they can’t get it fixed, I think it’s better to really know and be informed than it is to just be ignorant and not know.”

Zupkus said the community is exploring options to independently test everyone’s water using their own funding.

“(We are) taking responsibility for our own lives,” Zupkus said.