Chemicals being removed from Brighton Park migrant camp, environmental report says; city concludes site safe for habitation

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration released a lengthy environmental assessment late Friday detailing the cleanup of a polluted industrial site in Brighton Park where a tent camp for migrants is being built. The report by Terracon Consultants found high levels of mercury and other chemicals in the soil, which are being removed. The 800-page document was made public following weeks of pressure from environmental advocates and amid controversy over the planned migrant camp. Despite concerns, Johnson’s administration assured that the site is safe for temporary residential use.

However, the release of the report on a Friday evening, the delay in its release to the public, and the impact it may have on the future migrant encampment drew criticism from local and state officials. The report was not released to the public but obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Tribune, signaling a lack of transparency from the Mayor’s office. Officials in Governor J.B. Pritzker’s administration expressed frustration over the delay in receiving the report.

The planned tent camp is expected to hold about 2,000 asylum-seekers and is the city’s first government-run camp for new arrivals as they wait for space in brick-and-mortar shelters. The idea was proposed in September to address the issue of migrants sleeping in police station and airport lobbies. Despite the controversy, workers have begun building the camp, and the mayor’s office insists that ongoing environmental concerns will be mitigated. The initial mercury contamination and other chemical issues have reportedly been addressed.

The 38th and California site will be funded by the state as part of a $160 million state allocation to address the growing population of asylum-seekers in Chicago, a sign of rising involvement from Governor Pritzker. There are ongoing questions about how the city and state will share responsibility for the encampment. Local Alderman Julia Ramirez has consistently opposed the project due to poor communication from the Mayor’s office and continues to call for more comprehensive information about the site’s risks and the remediation process.

The city is racing to provide housing for hundreds of migrants before severe winter weather sets in, with the number of migrants in police stations and O’Hare Airport dropping significantly in recent weeks. Since August 2022, over 23,400 migrants have arrived in Chicago, mostly from south of the U.S. border, and the city is currently sheltering about 13,200 in 26 shelters.

The history of the site’s industrial use and the presence of contaminants had long been pointed out by environmental advocates and other stakeholders. Despite ongoing controversy and protests, the administration proceeded with the construction of the tent camp, leading to concerns about the safety of the site.

As of December 2022, there is ongoing debate and criticism about the decision to proceed with the migrant camp, and how potential health hazards will be mitigated. The environmental assessment will likely remain a point of contention as the tent camp continues to be constructed and prepared for occupancy.

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