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After pulling plug on first Chicago migrant tent camp, second site still on the table

One Chicago migrant tent camp is halted, but another may still be in the works
One Chicago migrant tent camp is halted, but another may still be in the works 02:08

CHICAGO (CBS) -- After Gov. JB Pritzker halted plans for the city's first choice for a winterized tent camp for migrants in Brighton Park, citing environmental concerns, plans are still in play for a second location in the Morgan Park neighborhood.

No construction has started at 115th and Halsted, but sources said that could change soon. It appears environmental testing at that site is happening before any construction begins, unlike with the now-shelved plan for a tent camp at 38th and California.

Pritzker on Tuesday announced the state would not proceed with plans to build that migrant tent camp in Brighton Park, saying there are too many environmental concerns at the proposed site to proceed.

Last week, a nearly 800-page report by contractor Terracon Consultants revealed high levels of mercury and other toxic chemicals were found at the site and were being removed, and the city deemed the site safe to house migrants.

But Pritzker paused work on the site over the weekend, and canceled construction altogether on Tuesday after he said an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency review of the city's report found "insufficient soil sampling and remediation."

"We will not proceed with housing families on a site where serious environmental concerns are still present," Pritzker said.

Environmental tests are still underway at the second possible tent camp site in Morgan Park. Soil samples at 115th and Halsted were taken for testing about two weeks ago. Sources said the tents from Brighton Park will be taken down – abandoning the gravel they laid down to solve the issue of contaminated soil – and brought to the Morgan Park site instead, but not until the environmental report is completed.

"We're just waiting for the results. The city said once those results come in, they'll share a timeline," said Ald. Ronnie Mosley (21st). "They're going to have a meeting to share the operations of that site."

The former Jewel store and parking lot is the city's second chosen location to house migrants in tent base camps.

The history of the land in Morgan Park seems less controversial, and possibly more suited for the tents than the lot in Brighton Park, according to multiple people close to the projects.

Second possible migrant tent camp site still on the table 02:50

The Morgan Park lot already is covered in concrete, rather than dirt like in Brighton Park.

"It's been concrete and so forth all throughout, which I think it lends itself to why the site was viable in the first place," Ald. Mosley said.

Toxic metals found in the soil in Brighton Park prompted the city to cover that site in six inches of gravel. That would not be the case at 115th and Halsted.

"The city noted that maybe there was a cleaners at one point in time there, and depending on how that cleaners got rid of their materials, that could be the only thing that they would foresee," Mosley said.

That' different than in Brighton Park, where former Ald. George Cardenas (12th) said the site had been previously assessed for a school and a park, but abandoned over the same environmental issues that scuttled the migrant camp there.

The city has promised Mosley that, should the Morgan Park site move forward as a migrant camp, the city would host a community meeting and provide a timeline on the construction and usage for the tent facility.

Any migrant camp built there would have to come down by Oct. 31, 2024, to make way for the Morgan Park Commons, a housing and retail development project that was in the works before the migrant crisis began. The State of Illinois has already invested $15 million into Morgan Park Commons.

The City Council in November agreed to Mayor Brandon Johnson's plan to purchase the lot for a migrant tent camp only after the mayor agreed to that compromise with Mosley, who had previously opposed the plan. Most of Mosley's City Council colleagues appeared set to vote down the project before he and Johnson reached the deal to set an end date for the migrant camp in Morgan Park.

"It's very important to us, because we have the Morgan Park Commons, which is going to be residential housing – over 280 units. So we want to make sure that it's safe for our residents in the 21st Ward," Mosley said.

The environmental report for the Morgan Park site is still pending. Sources said it is expected to be complete by Friday.

Migrant tent camp plan could be moved to Morgan Park site 04:07

Back in Brighton Park, the city still has not responded to us about how much money they already invested into that construction.

We reached out to GardaWorld – the company tasked with putting up the tents at the now called-off camp in Brighton Park – to ask them when they will be taken down.

In a statement, they referred us back to the city, and added, "We remain committed to supporting and working with the City of Chicago to address the needs of various populations."

Meantime, three aldermen were so upset with Johnson's handling of the planned tent camp in Brighton Park, they were demanding heads roll at City Hall.

Alds. Anthony Beale (9th), Raymond Lopez (15th), and Anthony Napolitano (41st) sent the mayor a letter on Wednesday demanding seven of his top advisers resign – including First Deputy Chief of Staff Cristina Pcione-Zayas and Deputy Mayor of Immigrant, Migrant and Refugee Rights Beatriz Ponce de León.

"They should not be employed and being paid for spending and wasting tens of millions of dollars," Beale said.

In their letter, the aldermen said the Johnson administration's handling of the situation "does not show members of your administration as being either serious, deliberative or collaborative in addressing this issue."

"Taxpayer funds are now wasted after a failed attempt to build on highly cancerous soil, without permits, without true community engagement, without a plan that is respectful to those whom so many performatively articulate sanctuary for in our city," they wrote. "Chicago taxpayers cannot afford the mistakes being made by these members of your team failing to meet this moment. We look forward to your swift response on this request."

Johnson spokesman Ronnie Reese dismissed the aldermen's letter.

"This is not serious correspondence, yet the individuals it attacks are doing very serious work in addressing the urgency of a humanitarian crisis that has brought nearly 25,000 new arrivals to our city," Reese said in an email. Our administration remains focused on housing and providing resources for new arrivals, as well as unhoused Chicagoans and residents, who, for generations, have experienced neglect and disinvestment in our city. We will continue collaborating with anyone taking this work seriously."

Beale will join us live on the CBS News Chicago stream Thursday morning.

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