Reclaiming Barrie Park

What a long, strange saga it has been

Opinion

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

When the first evidence of toxic waste was found at Barrie Park in 1997, few who came to be involved in the subsequent environmental cleanup project expected it would take eight years before a new park could be returned to the neighborhood.

Nobody could predict that a cleanup whose original scope called only for removing up to three feet of dirt, and whose price tag was expected to be less than $10 million, would ultimately involve the removal of 350,000 tons of soil, and cost over $100 million.

Even more shocking to many was the disruption the project would cause to the lives of area residents, many of whom had to relocate to alternate housing for years as the park's landscape became ever bleaker.

After years of frustration for all involved, the park is now open, and most are eager to move past Barrie Park's toxic-cleanup-era, and turn their attention to kids, grass and soccer.

But, as with all monumental events, it's good to take at least one long look back.

The questions of why this cleanup took so long, and led to so much conflict?#34;-between residents in the neighborhood, between the village and the park district, among others?#34;-are worth revisiting.

Why so long? Officials point to the complexity of the project, and the uniqueness of the cleanup site.

"We had a lot of issues that had to be resolved that there wasn't a lot of precedent for," said Ed Cooney, who served as the park district's environmental consultant for the entire project. "I think the site is unique because of its size, where it is, what was left there and what had to be removed, as well as the impact to area residents' lives."

"A lot of those things happen in part in other places, but not all at once in such a small lot," he added, also noting that the site "wasn't characterized correctly early on." There were some logistical surprises throughout the project, including the late uncovering of water wells.

Both Gary Balling, parks director, and Tim Kelly, a park board member throughout the cleanup process (and one of the only elected officials to hold that distinction) said it was also in part simply a matter of the number of groups involved: utility companies, the park district, the village, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) and, of course, the many residents impacted.

"It's a public works project that had to be participated in with many governments and quasi government agencies. And the glacier -like pace of any government doesn't seem reasonable until you're on the inside of it," Kelly said.

Also, the disagreements over how the cleanup should be carried out were many and sometimes dramatic.

What park district officials and the utility companies defined as an appropriately thorough cleanup were often at odds. What the park district should fight for, and what it should let go of, was also a source of tension between the village and the parks, and between neighbors in the area.

Ultimately, the organization most think really had the authority to sort that out, the IEPA, really didn't have the ability to do so.

The cleanup of Barrie Park was part of the IEPA's voluntary program. The village and park district had each signed separate agreements with the utilities?#34;agreements that far exceeded standards set by the IEPA. At times, the IEPA was thrown into the middle of disagreements between the utilities and the park district. The agency's ability to act on those disagreements was restricted by its official powers and its resources.

"We had our limitations as to what we could enforce," said IEPA spokesperson Maggie Carson. "It could be frustrating partly because of our limitations, and our limited role."

"There were times when people would have wished the IEPA stepped up more, and also times when people felt, because there was a contract between the parks and the utilities, the IEPA shouldn't have been involved," Balling said. "The people involved wanted the best of both worlds."

Further, Cooney said, there may be some problems with the legally mandated cleanup requirements.

"The problem with MGP sites as opposed to other plants is that the utility lobby has such power with the state, they can get by with doing a bare minimum cleanup and still meet the requirements," Cooney said.

Contributing to the complexity of the project were tensions between the park district and village, which were publicly expressed rarely, but were there as a constant backdrop. There was a sense over the years that the village felt the parks pressed for stricter cleanup standards than were necessary, it should have backed off, and just let the project end> It was a question for some of getting it done right as opposed to getting it done quickly.

Kelly said he never expected the project to take as long as it did, but knew that, to get the cleanup done right, there wasn't much hope of having it done soon. "The first look at the pit, I saw nothing but time," he said.

Village Manager Carl Swenson said at the beginning of the project that, the cleanup needed to get done safely, but as he stood on the park with top village staff he said speed was on his mind.

"Before the fences went up, I remember saying [to staff] 'remember how this feels, we need to get this back as soon as we can,'" he said.

Officially, it was always the stance of the village to support the park district as "property owner," said Swenson.

"It wasn't our place to second guess the decision making of the park district," he said.

Some statements made in various newspaper articles over the years, however, hint at disagreements, both in how the cleanup was conducted and how it was approached by both governments.

In January 2003, when the utilities proposed digging at shallower depths in the park so the cleanup could be completed before the amount of chemicals released in the air exceeded an established air standard, the parks put up a full fight to block the measure. The village had backed the parks on that stance previously, but with the project already dragging on, Swenson made a point of suggesting compromise: "We have to get it done and we have to find flexibility somewhere," he said at the time. "This is such a disruptive situation. This is not about attacking the park district, but if the utilities are not willing to change the air standard, there may be a need to make modifications to the project scope."

It was also clear that, at times, the village believed the park district was too adversarial in its approach. In November 2002, the district had sent a strongly worded letter to the IEPA, questioning a conversation the agency had held in private with the utilities. Barbara Ebner, a village trustee at the time, noted the village "wasn't anxious to shoot off letters to the IEPA."

For his part, Kelly acknowledged the tension, but said it wasn't necessarily always bad.

"Our relationship in this process was like a marriage?#34;choosing to live with our biggest critic consciously. I think we learned a lot of about each other policy wise," he said. "Some of the conflict during that process made the final product even better than it would have been if it had been all one government. They contributed to our work intellectually and vice versa."

On technical matters, however, some questioned whether the tension was in part due to the village and the district each having hired separate consulting teams. After all, neither park district nor village officials had expertise in conducting toxic cleanups, and both had to rely heavily on technical advice.

The consulting teams appeared to have different attitudes, if not opinions. The district's attorney and consultant seemed passionately prepared for war with the utilities, offering pithy quotes (like "ComEd is a puppy peeing on itself," the parks' attorney said in one meeting). The village consultants always appeared more subdued.

The idea of hiring the same consultants was discussed, both Balling and Swenson said.

"The option was on the table. It was just something the park district and the village board were never able to come together on hiring one firm," Balling said.

Obviously, there were two different property owners involved. However, though not spoken of publicly by officials on either side, some village officials found it inappropriate that the park district's consultant was Kelly's brother-in-law, a factor which may or may not have played in to a decision to hire a separate group.

Another factor that may have, in part, hindered a timely end to the project, was that those who held top positions in various organizations working on the cleanup seemed to change often over the years.

"A lot of people didn't survive this. There was more than average turnover because of what it was. If you had a weak stomach, it wasn't your cup of tea," Kelly said.

As the project dragged on, Barrie Park also became a political issue, especially during the village board elections in 2003, when residents were in the midst of asking the village to pursue a home buyout program.

And during that period, there was a sense that at least some neighbors had a greater respect for the park district's role in the cleanup than the village (though there were certainly other neighbors who thought the district pushed too hard, and made the project drag on too long).

Kelly said he saw the sentiment expressed in the past, but added that it wasn't always fair.

"The park district is fun and games, children playing in the park. The village is street and boring projects," Kelly said. "It's very easy to root for us and probably a little unfair to the village."

Asked if the village got its share of credit, Swenson only said, "it's not about credit or about blame."

Barrie Park, over the years, also grabbed its fair share of headlines. Occasionally, one resident used to call and say Wednesday Journal wrote a little too much about it?#34;and perhaps that was what would do more harm to property values in the end.

So, did the paper overdo it? Was it not that big of a deal?

Both Swenson and Kelly say no.

"It was the biggest event during that period for many. It was upsetting for many in that neighborhood and politically, a lot of people lived and died by the Barrie sword," Kelly said. "It was a huge deal. A lot of people tried to play it down."

Overall, there were varying opinions on Barrie Park from all sides, from newspapers, residents and consultants alike.

"Certain people thought the park district had done an outstanding job, others said just give us our park back," Balling said. "A lot of different people had different ideas about how the cleanup should have been done."

But, as Balling noted, "the good news is that it is done."

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