City officials detected high levels of the brain-damaging metal manganese in the dirt of a Southeast Side youth baseball field a year ago but didn’t tell league organizers or families of players.
Instead, the city shared its findings with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which this summer confirmed the city’s early soil testing results that high levels of manganese are present in dirt on a section of Babe Ruth Field in Hegewisch. The manganese levels are high enough the contaminated soil needs to be removed, the EPA says.
The city deferred to EPA, asking the agency to do further testing and notify youth league officials. Saying they “followed standard protocol,” city health officials referred the matter to EPA earlier this year “to ensure the field was appropriately characterized before notifying the public and the league,” according to a City Hall statement.
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the 2020 season for Hegewisch Babe Ruth, a league for players 13 to 18, and no games were played in the spring. But a few games were played at the field at 12600 S. Carondolet Ave. in July, said league treasurer Jim Laskowiecki. Adult players also played ball on the field recently, he said.
State: Safe to play with precautions
Despite the EPA’s findings, state health officials told the league board in a July letter that the field was safe for play even with the presence of manganese.
In fact, Brian Koch, of the Division of Environmental Health, said in the letter that teens and adults can play at Babe Ruth as long as grass is covering the contaminated area. Koch said players and spectators can minimize exposure by “cleaning clothing and equipment of dust or loose dirt prior to leaving the field” and washing hands after playing. The letter also suggested removing shoes when going inside homes, using door mats and vacuuming frequently. And Koch recommended eating a balanced diet with vitamins and minerals.
However, younger kids should stay away from the field, the letter stated.
“Children younger than 6 years of age who play daily in this soil may be at risk of experiencing manganese-related health effects, including learning and behavioral changes and other nervous system effects such as slowed hand movements and incoordination,” it said.
Neighbors remain wary
Despite the state assurances, the contamination at Babe Ruth and the recent cleanup of lead and arsenic at nearby Hegewisch Little League field, also on Carondolet, has shaken confidence of some area families who say government officials at all levels haven’t given them straight answers.
Bernard Ralich’s now adult son Daniel played at both the Little League and Babe Ruth fields as a teenager. His grandson Gavin is a Hegewisch Little Leaguer where play at that nearby field resumed in recent weeks following the EPA cleanup.
After noticing a sign at a site near the Little League field warning of toxic material, Ralich said he contacted EPA and other government officials multiple times in 2019 prior to any public warnings about contamination. He’s concerned about the handling of cleanups at both youth fields and called the city’s failure to notify residents of its findings “bull- – – -.”
“What about the kids? Do we have to get them checked? We don’t get no answers,” he said.
Hegewisch resident Oscar Sanchez, a community activist whose brothers played at Babe Ruth in the past, called the government responses and lack of openness with the residents frustrating.
“It’s not only the pollution, it’s also individuals not understanding the health risks,” Sanchez said. City and other government officials need to better communicate these environmental risks, he added.
Years of tension
The contaminated youth ball fields are just the latest in years-long tensions between government agencies and neighbors concerned about the cumulative effects of polluting industries on the Southeast Side. A number of residents are fighting the planned move of scrap iron shredder General Iron to the Southeast Side.
“We don’t need any more pollution,” Ralich said of General Iron.
EPA says it’s still trying to determine the source of the manganese contamination but the agency’s website groups the Babe Ruth soil contamination with other environmental testing around the nearby Watco Terminal site on East 126th Street, which handles bulk solid materials such as manganese-bearing alloys.
EPA said it’s working with the city “to determine what next steps will be taken” related to cleanup at Babe Ruth. City health officials said they hope to have the field remediated by spring.
The agency recently completed remediation of the Hegewisch Little League field after determining it was contaminated. The agency said it removed almost 1,200 tons of lead and arsenic contaminated soil and replaced it with clean dirt. The EPA determined that Watco was not the source of those contaminants found at the Little League ballpark.
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.