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Gov. JB Pritzker scraps Chicago's plan for first migrant tent camp in Brighton Park over contaminated soil

What will happen to land in Chicago's Brighton Park with migrant tent camp called off?
What will happen to land in Chicago's Brighton Park with migrant tent camp called off? 02:55

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Gov. JB Pritzker has rejected Chicago's plans to build a migrant tent camp in Brighton Park, saying there are too many environmental concerns at the proposed site to proceed.

"My administration is committed to keeping asylum seekers safe as we work to help them achieve independence," Pritzker said in a statement. "We will not proceed with housing families on a site where serious environmental concerns are still present. My administration remains committed to a data-driven plan to improve the asylum seeker response and we will continue to coordinate with the City of Chicago as we work to expand available shelter through winter."  

The announcement comes after the city claimed the site was safe to use for migrants, despite an environmental report that found contaminated soil at the site.

Over the weekend, city officials said the site is safe to house as many as 2,000 migrants, after releasing an environmental review that prompted remediation work on the site, including removal of contaminated soil.

The city's Department of Assets, Information, and Services contracted with Terracon Consultants Inc. to conduct an environmental assessment of the site at 3710 S. California Ave. Terracon conducted a field investigation that involved soil, groundwater, and soil gas sampling.

After taking the samples, the contractor compared them to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency's remediation standards for residential use, the city said. Soil with mercury levels was found at one spot on the site, and was removed and disposed of in a landfill, the city said.

Soil with a high level of a semi-volatile compound was also found on the site, and will be removed, the city said.

The city released a report from Terracon measuring nearly 800 pages. It also documented the discovery of arsenic, lead, and other chemicals at the site.

The Department of Assets, Information, and Services also said a barrier of crushed clean stone with a minimum thickness of 6 inches was to be placed along the surface of the site. With the barrier and limited soil removal, the city deemed the site safe for temporary residential use.

But Pritzker's office said an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency review of the city's environmental analysis of the site found "insufficient soil sampling and remediation."

"IEPA would not approve the proposed Brighton Park site for residential use, based on our regulatory standards for remediation of contaminated properties," said Illinois EPA Director John J. Kim. "The well-being of residents and workers at the site is our highest priority, and current and planned site conditions do not adequately reduce risks of human exposure to known and potential environmental conditions."

According to the governor's office, the IEPA review of the Brighton Park site found:

  • The limited nature and insufficient number of soil borings conducted at the site does not provide a comprehensive assessment of environmental conditions across the site.
  • Additional soil sampling is needed to further determine if there is additional contamination at the site and to fully investigate potential sources of contamination that were identified from historical site use.

"The remediations implemented thus far do not satisfy IEPA standards and are insufficient. At a minimum, an expanded engineered barrier between contaminated soil and human exposure would need to be installed to address exposure concerns. Further investigation might also identify additional contamination that would require additional remediation," the governor's office said in a press release.

A U.S. EPA spokesperson said the agency "is aware of the Chicago Brighton Park activities, which fall under the Illinois EPA's site remediation program."

"U.S. EPA is actively engaging the Illinois EPA and stands ready to assist if requested by the state," U.S. EPA spokeswoman Rachel Bassler said.

State of Illinois scraps plans for Brighton Park migrant tent camp 02:27

Mayor Brandon Johnson defended the city's handling of its environmental assessment of the site.

"The State of Illinois knew that this assessment was happening, and felt confident enough to continue to build onto this site," while the environmental assessment was underway, Johnson said. "The state did not provide any additional guidelines, or any sort of methodology in which they were requiring us to go by, so we used the standards that were available to us. The site has been substantiated at being safe by third-party validators, and again the contract that the state of Illinois went into with GardaWorld as they continued to build out on this site, there was no indication throughout this entire process that a standard or a different methodology was preferrable by the state of Illinois."

Construction on the tent site in Brighton Park began last week, and crews had made significant progress in erecting tents. The state had paused construction on the tent camp over the weekend, but now the proposed tent camp won't move forward at all. 

Because of the amount of time it would take to conduct additional testing, analyze results, and perform further cleanup, Pritzker's office said the state will work with the city to identify alternative shelter options.  

City officials had planned to house up to 2,000 migrants at the site at 38th and California, but it's now unclear where or when an alternative shelter site will be built for migrants who would have been housed there.

The state had planned to fund construction of the Brighton Park tent camp, but had said it would not be allowed to open until it was deemed safe.

Last week, Pritzker's office announced $65 million in funding for the Brighton Park site and for a brick-and-mortar shelter for migrants at a shuttered CVS pharmacy in Little Village. While the Brighton Park encampment is now off the table, Pritzker's office said it will proceed with plans for the brick-and-mortar shelter in Little Village, with beds for up to 200 people. The state is also consulting with the Archdiocese of Chicago to identify other possible options for brick-and-mortar shelters.

"Over the past year, the Archdiocese of Chicago has conducted tours for city, county and state representatives of several archdiocesan properties that could be used as temporary housing for asylum seekers. Those officials continue to work with us to determine which locations they feel are appropriate for this purpose and to remove administrative barriers to their use," Archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Thomas said in an email. "In the meantime, our parishes and Catholic Charities continue their substantial work of aiding our migrant sisters and brothers."

In Portage Park, a new shelter at St. Bartholomew School and Convent is set to house as many as 350 families.

"Public safety is the main concern - and you know, making sure that everybody's following the rules and protocols of a shelter; that there is not a lot of noise or partying outside at the parking lot," said Ald. Ruth Cruz (30th).

State rejects plan for migrant tent camp in Brighton Park 02:10

Meanwhile, Johnson said he remains committed to getting hundreds of migrants out of police stations before winter. As of Tuesday, a total of 451 migrants were staying at Chicago police stations while waiting for placement in a temporary shelter. Migrants have been moved out altogether from 13 police district stations so far. Another 13,454 asylum seekers are staying at one of 26 temporary city-run shelters, and 164 others are staying at O'Hare International Airport while waiting for shelters.

The number of migrants sleeping at police stations has dropped dramatically in recent weeks. At the start of December, there were more than 1,000 asylum seekers staying at police stations. That number peaked at 3,338 migrants staying at police stations on Oct. 16

"First of all, the mission is still very much alive. I've said from the very beginning, especially as winter is approaching, weather is shifting, is to give people out of police stations. Women, children sleeping on the floors, those who are sleeping outside; to remove people from police stations," Johnson said. "The plan is still to make sure that individuals who are being bused to the city of Chicago from a variety of cities, that they are not living outside, and they're not living in police districts."

Frank Avila, an attorney who had filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of Brighton Park neighbors who sought a court order to block the project, said the site needs to be cleaned up, even though it no longer will be used as a camp for migrants, to protect the health of people who live and work nearby.

"This needs to be cleaned up for the community now. They've waited decades for this to be cleaned up," he said.

On Monday, a judge turned down Avila's bid for a temporary restraining order to halt construction of the site, noting the state had already paused work.

Avila said Johnson should resign.

"There needs to be a special election so we can get a mayor who can handle the city of Chicago. Mayor Johnson has proved that he's incompetent. He's proved that he has no communication with any other units of government, let alone this community or any other communities, and we need somebody that can keep a handle on this crisis," he said.

Ald. Julia Ramirez (12th), who opposed the plan to use the site as a migrant shelter, and repeatedly criticized the mayor and his administration for a lack of communication and transparency in their handling of the planned tent camp, praised the governor for stepping in to halt the project.

"On one end, we won't have that capacity to support the current crisis. On the other end, you know, throughout this process … there has been many layers that have been red flags for my office, for constituents here in the ward," she said. "I want to make it very clear I wasn't against the lot, because I'm not willing to support and provide shelter for asylum seekers, but we need to do it in a more humane dignified way for asylum seekers."

Ramirez said she had expected the site to open up as early as this week – with construction well under way.

When CBS 2's Marybel González asked how much the city has already spent to date on the construction of the tent camp, Ramirez said, "As of right now, I do not, but I know that this is a really important question."

Now on Ramirez's agenda is determining what to do with the land – and the investment already put in.

"And how is this not going to be a net loss, but how are we going to proceed in giving something back to the community?" Ramirez said.

Former Ald. George Cardenas (12th) said he tried to get a school built on the same site a decade ago, but it was deemed unsafe then.

"The Public Building Commission knew that that site was contaminated," Cardenas said. "We had tried to put a school there about 10 years ago, and we could not, because the contaminants, and children, families, and so forth. It just didn't make any sense then, and it didn't make any sense now. So I'm surprised, really, it went this far."

Cardenas, who is now a member of the Cook County Board of Review, said he's glad the governor stepped in to stop the plan for a migrant tent camp at the site.

"He can read the tea leaves on this project, and the overall consensus, and the feeling from the community and the city as a whole. This is not a real process. If it were a business, this would not have happened," he said. 

The site stirred controversy and debate for nearly two months, as neighbors opposed to the plan staged multiple protests.

"We had to go through all of these procedures, and all of these fights, and no one really wanted to listen to us," said Ricardo Palacios.

What does failure of Brighton Park migrant tent camp plan say about mayor's leadership? 05:49

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) said the fact the tent camp plan in Brighton Park fell apart is an example of the lack of a comprehensive plan by the Johnson administration, and shows how the mayor has not leveraged his relationships with alderpersons to take advantage of their expertise on their own wards.

Villegas also noted Johnson had not held an executive office before being elected mayor, and is now in charge of a government with an annual budget of more than $16 billion, making it all the more important for him to collaborate more with alderpersons on solving the issue of housing migrants.

"Unfortunately, that's not happening," he said. "When you're running a campaign, and you're governing, it's two different things. So when you're collaborating, I think it's important to realize that once the election's done, you won and the City Council members won, and if you maybe didn't work with them, we all have a vested interest in making sure the city's moving in the right direction, and so it's time to put pettiness aside, bring in folks that have leadership experience."

Villegas said he thinks Johnson has fallen short when it comes to working with alderpeople who aren't part of the progressive political movement that swept him into office.

"We've got to make sure that we're getting folks in there that have experience, regardless of their politics," he said. 

Johnson said the city is looking at multiple sites that could take the place of the planned migrant tent camp in Brighton Park. One possible option is a former Jewel store and parking lot at 115th and Halsted streets in the Morgan Park neighborhood. Last month, the City Council approved a plan to purchase that site for $1 to set up a tent camp for up to 1,400 migrants.

"Whether it's 115th and Halsted, that has already been identified, as other folks have asked for Plan B, I've been planning for Plan B, C, D, E, and F from the very moment that I became mayor of the city of Chicago. So, whether it's 115th and Halsted, or 38th and California, or any other brick-and-mortar location that we've identified that can serve the purpose of this mission, know that my administration is planning ahead."

The deal to purchase the Morgan Park site came only after local Ald. Ronnie Mosley (21st) reversed his earlier opposition to the plan after Johnson agreed to add a provision to guarantee the site could not be used to house migrants beyond Oct. 31, 2024.

The site had already been earmarked to become Morgan Park Commons – a  development of housing, retail, and park space – and Mosley had said his constituents feared what the migrant tent plan would mean for the fate of that project. Once the mayor agreed to put an expiration date on the use of the site for a migrant camp, Mosley dropped his opposition, clearing the way for the City Council to approve it.

The city last month began an environmental analysis of that site, but has not released any results, or announced when construction could begin.

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