Soil testing for contaminants will delay beautification project

• Parent leading charge for green space lived through Barrie Park ordeal, hopes he's not on the verge of another.

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A photo found at Irving Elementary School has prompted District 97 to take samples of soil beneath the school's blacktopped playground before proceeding with a project to make the space greener.

The 1933 photo shows a separate heating plant building that the district believes was connected to the main building via steam tunnels, said Gary Lonquist, asst. supt. for finance and operations. The picture raised concerns that contaminants from the heating facility might have gotten into the soil, which is now sealed with asphalt.

Lonquist said the facility was probably powered by coal, then later may have been converted to being gas-powered.

Because the facility was operated for district purposesâ€"unlike the Manufactured Gas Plant that utility companies once operated on the Barrie Park siteâ€"the district could not ask utilities to pay for remediation, Lonquist said.

School officials were unsure when the facility was torn down, and expected to consult with the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest. Files there only showed a 1959 Dist. 97 pamphlet on Irving that says the district underwent a decade-long building project funded by a $6.75 million bond sale.

A picture of a demolished building in the pamphlet looks to be in the approximate position where the heating facility once stood, and is captioned, "The old makes way for the new."

The discovery and subsequent soil testing will delay a playground redesign proposal the Irving Parent-Teacher Organization planned to present to the Board of Education once it incorporated as a nonprofit. The group would need nonprofit status to apply for grants.

Ron Martin, who heads the PTO effort for green space, would not release details of the proposal because he wants the first look to come when he presents it to the board. However, Martin said the plan calls for trees with planters, grass or a grass-like artificial turf, a rain garden and a fence with bushes to soften the look from Ridgeland Avenue.

The three-page proposal also specifies how the space could be better used for classroom activities and programming, Martin said.

He said he couldn't estimate cost of the proposal.

"Is it going to be cheap? No," he said, adding that it would cost $50,000 to remove the asphalt and replace it with sodâ€"a much less involved process than what the PTO is proposing.

In addition to grants, the PTO will ask the district for some funding for the project, Martin said.

Three fifth-graders are planning to make a 5-minute mock documentary about the green space, which the PTO would include in its request for grant funding.

Martin said his wife is a research librarian and has access to information about grants.

"We're not doing anything until we find out what's underneath" the asphalt, he said.

"I hope nothing's under there," said Martin, who moved with his family into a house in the Barrie Park neighborhood six months before it was closed for remediation. The process began in 2001 and the park has not yet reopened.

But if contaminants are found in the Irving soil, "I would rather they leave it covered up if it's going to be another Barrie Park," Martin said. "The Barrie Park thing has been a nightmare. I can't imagine living through something like that again."


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