Superfund to super fun – aquatic park built on former radioactive waste site

Betsy Doud

It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect setting for a new aquatic center than the Reed Keppler Park in West Chicago, Illinois. Surrounded by mature oaks, marsh lands and expanses of Midwest prairie, its low-slung buildings and newer elements of aquatic design blend perfectly with the 104-acre site. Touring the facility on a breezy fall day with Park District Director Dave Thomas, his pride in the newly opened project was palpable. “This was a sorely needed project in our community,” he says, describing a rapidly farm land, blue collar workers and upscale luxury homes. An original pool on the site was built in 1957 and operated by the West Chicago Swimming Pool Association until 1973 when the Park District took over its operation on land leased from the city.

The Aquatic Center “Dream”

By 1975, Thomas, then superintendent of parks, was deeply concerned about pool conditions, particularly the potentially hazardous location of an electrical system unprotected from filter or pool water backups. In 1979 the pool was closed, pending a referendum for necessary repair costs. The city, afraid the pool would have to remain closed indefinitely if the referendum failed, spent approximately $20,000 on repairs and took over the pool’s operation for the next 10 years.

By 1988, city audits revealed losses of $20,000 to $30,000 per year on the pool’s operation and decided it was time to turn the pool back over the park district. After touring the facility, which he knew well from his days as park superintendent, Thomas noted that electrical systems were still improperly located, and that the entire design of the pool remained a major problem. In spite of new filters, plumbing systems and some cosmetic changes, it remained a 30-year-old pool too obsolete in systems and design to salvage. Dave Thomas began to envision a new “water park” facility for the community. But his vision was soon interrupted by the existence of radioactive materials within Reed Keppler Park.

Radioactive Materials Defined

As early as 1977, the incidence of low-level radioactive materials in the park had been an issue. The material, thorium, originated from wastes from a West Chicago thorium processing facility. In 1931, the company began extracting the chemical for use in gas mantles, and subsequently supplied both thorium and rare earths to the U.S. government for the Manhattan Project. What appeared to be sand and gravel were actually ore extractions from the company’s chemical processing, some containing low-level radioactive properties. The plant closed in 1973. In 1976, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was informed that thorium residues may have been deposited in the undeveloped park site which was originally a town dump. 1983 studies by the EPA, Argonne National Laboratories (IL) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, concluded that while thorium was present at Reed Keppler Park, it was basically contained at a former dump site which was now surrounded by trees, fenced off and no longer accessible to the public.

Park Labeled a “Superfund” Site

In 1986, while installing a water line to a softball complex in the park, the district found thorium-bearing materials close to, but outside the confines of, the original dump site. “We had a problem,” Thomas says, “And it was bigger than what we had originally thought.” Since the original processing facility entered into a “Consent Decree” with the city in 1985 to clean up the identified thorium deposits, they offered to remove the materials found along the water line excavation.

NRC refused to allow the removal, stating that the radioactive materials would have to remain in place until guidelines could be developed for their removal. In addition, the extent of thorium deposits within the park would have to be investigated. By 1990, the entire park was placed on the National Priorities List of sites that were awaiting clean up under the Superfund program, along with three other sites within the community.

Meanwhile, under pressure from the constituents disgruntled with their disintegrating pool facility, the mayor appointed an “ad hoc” committee to study the need for a new pool. After 18 months of study and discussion, their findings strongly supported the construction of a new aquatic facility at Reed Keppler Park, still considered the most viable site for such a complex. In February, 1990, the Park Board and City of West Chicago reached an agreement that set the parameters of closing the old pool, constructing a new one and renegotiating the park district’s lease with the city.

The park district would finance the project through a $6 million Alternate Revenue Source Bond Issue Ordinance, passed in the latter part of 1990. Williams Associates Architects of Wheaton, (IL) in conjunction with Leisure Concepts and Design, an aquatic specialty firm, were awarded the design commission for the project. Since soil and load-bearing studies of the site were the initial architectural steps, and the property was now a known Superfund site, the soil testing company, had obvious concerns. As Thomas states, “The 1983 studies of the site had concluded that the thorium-based wastes were contained only at or near the former dump site, so we were shocked when it was revealed to us that there was a `potential problem, in the area where the aquatic center’s parking lot was planned.”

“Being this far into the project,” Thomas continued, “our next step was to contact the EPA.” Their response was that the Park District would have to delay the project until a multi-year federal investigation was completed, or conduct, at their expense, a Remedial Investigation (RI) of the pool site pending any construction. The RI would outline the extent of any thorium-contaminated soils within the park and a plan to excavate those soils. In the summer of 1991, Versar, Inc. of Oakbrook, (IL), a firm with prior EPA experience, presented a $90,000 proposal for the RI to the West Chicago Park District, with actual remediation costs to be determined at a later date, and the Park Board granted its approval.

Radioactive Materials Study Techniques and Results

With the approval of the EPA and NRC, Versar used a unique, non-invasive process for the site investigation. The process had been used on a nearby site and was proven conclusive for the detection of thorium. In their review of the entire site–at ground level, three feet above ground level and at 10 feet below ground level–Versar found only three isolated “hot spots” within the park.

In the meantime, a newly formed citizen’s committee, had begun voicing heated opposition to the aquatic center project based on presumed health risks, combined with the fear that development of the site would preclude the original processing facility’s legal and financial responsibility for clean up.

Thomas, and the district’s Board of Commissioners remained deeply committed to the project. “In spite of the strong opposition, we didn’t feel as though life in West Chicago should stop for 10 to 15 years of cleanup,” he says. “And we were confident that our users would not be exposed to any unnecessary heath risk.” With the reconfiguration of the parking lot site and the pool footprint, the EPA study of Versar’s results concluded that, “all construction activities will be taking place exclusively in areas that have been tested and found to be free of contamination and the construction of this facility will not interfere with any future remediation (cleanup) efforts.”

The City’s Conditions

Despite the park district’s determination, the decision to go ahead was not their’s alone. Since the property was leased from the City of West Chicago, there were further stipulations to cover municipal liability. Included in the stipulations were: monitoring of the site during construction, the guarantee of a “clean” site and the designation of “a place to store any thorium material discovered and removed during construction.”

By 1993, Versar had submitted an additional plan to comply with each of these conditions, with the exception of a site for thorium waste disposal. According to Thomas, “There was at the time, no place in the universe licensed to accept this type of material, although we knew of one site illegally accepting thorium wastes. . . after four years, our project had hit a dead end.” Finally, in late 1993, a Utah firm was licensed by the NRC as a site for the disposal of thorium-based materials. With the results of the “Remedial Investigation,” the assurances of continual monitoring of the site by the EPA and the approval of the dumping site in Utah, any remaining community opposition to the site was appeased. “Unbelievably,” says Thomas, “the project was finally becoming a reality.”

Construction and Completion

Construction of the aquatic center was completed in just nine months. According to Mike Williams of Williams Associates Architects, “The construction phase of this aquatic park is a story in itself. The park district retained our sister company, Williams Development, Ltd., to provide construction management services and every bucket of dirt was monitored by Versar during the 12-week excavation portion of the project.”

Only authorized persons were allowed on the site; an eight-foot construction fence around the site perimeter protected the public. “In addition, we installed a 24-hour air monitoring system and required TLD (radioactive detection) badges of all construction personnel,” continued Williams. The selective demolition and specialty earthwork proceeded smoothly with the discovery of only two small additional hot spots. One, under the sidewalk of the old pool was covered for future removal during the overall park cleanup. The other, one third of a drum, was shipped to the Utah site.

The Prairie Oaks Aquatic Center opened in June of 1995, to astounding public support. It made a significant profit in its initial season. While Dave Thomas, main goal was to create a facility that would generate the revenue to pay for its operation, it was far from his only goal. “This aquatic center,” he says, “is our first new facility in West Chicago. Our community deserved this project. It’s more than a just a swimming pool, but a place where West Chicago–from toddlers to grandparents–comes together.

“As one of only a handful of Superfund sites returned to active recreational use, Prairie Oaks has been worth the wait,” Ken Westlake of the EPA adds. “Completion of the pool, and the cooperation which evolved during its construction, has been a major milestone in our efforts at environmental restoration in this area.”


Although the original thorium producing facility has maintained no responsibility for the thorium-bearing materials at Reed Keppler Park–or that such materials are inherently dangerous–the company signed a Removal Order in 1994 with the United States EPA, and the City of West Chicago. The order provides for the clean up of residential areas in West Chicago and its vicinity. Under a separate agreement with the State of Illinois, cleanup at the former facility has been mandated by 1998 at an estimated cost of $140 million.

Regarding Reed Keppler Park, the EPA expects to complete its investigatory work of the entire site in time for cleanup to begin in 1996.

COPYRIGHT 1996 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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