'Brutal ignorance': Community sounds off after Chicago migrant camp shut down

The construction of a controversial migrant encampment on the city's Southwest Side has been shut down for good.

Governor J.B. Pritzker made the final call Tuesday after state experts uncovered "serious environmental concerns" at the Brighton Park site upon review of a nearly 800-page report conducted by Terracon Consultants, Inc.

The consulting firm was contracted by the City of Chicago to investigate the safety of the land. Despite the report revealing that toxic chemicals – like mercury and arsenic – were discovered, city officials deemed the site ‘safe’ following their own remediation strategies.

"According to the report, soil with mercury levels was identified at one location and was removed and properly disposed offsite at a landfill, and with the limited soil removal, and placement and maintenance of the barrier, the site is safe for temporary residential use," a spokesperson for Mayor Brandon Johnson stated Monday.

However, in a stunning turn of events, state officials announced Tuesday that hazardous substances found in the soil were not addressed in ways that meet state standards for residential use.

The bombshell development is a major setback for the Johnson Administration when it comes to migrant housing, but for many residents it's a win.

"The residents prevailed, the residents won the case!" said Dr. Kim Tee, community activist.

Construction was temporarily halted at the encampment site, located at 38th Street and California Avenue on Monday – just mere hours after Chicago officials said the site was still "safe for temporary residential use." Pritzker had ordered construction to stop while the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) reviewed environmental assessments.

On Tuesday, IEPA officials determined there were "concerns related to insufficient soil sampling and remediation" at the proposed site.

Due to the time required to conduct additional sampling, analyze results and implement further remediation, state officials said they will now work with the City of Chicago to find alternate shelter options.

"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."

The 9.5-acre lot has been the subject of heated debate since October, when residents discovered the city was planning to utilize it for migrant housing.

"It’s not even safe for them, it’s not safe for them," said Esmeralda Gutierrez, a resident.

Neighbors have been sounding the alarm since the start – calling the safety of the site into question, and revealing that previous attempts to use the land failed due to environmental concerns.

"This was known by the City of Chicago. There's institutional knowledge. Now we've learned how toxic and contaminated this site is," said Frank Avila, attorney for Brighton Park residents. "That is incompetence, that is brutal ignorance, that is putting the migrants in danger, that is putting the residents in danger and then when they’re doing construction, that is all going up into the air!"

In response to Pritzker’s decision to end any further development of the encampment, a spokesperson for the mayor said, in part:

"The investigation included soil sampling, groundwater sampling, and soil gas sampling which yielded soil analytical results, groundwater analytical results, and soil gas analytical results. Per the findings, the City conducted remediation work which included both the removal of contaminants and the introduction of new materials to eliminate safety risks for individuals who would reside in temporary residential housing.

"Despite being made aware of the above assessment and remediation process, the State provided no additional guidance on its preferred methodology or assessment criteria, nor raised any concerns about its own decision to move forward with construction prior to the release of Terracon’s report."

Still, community members are blasting Mayor Johnson.

"He is not doing the right thing for the taxpayers. Wasteful spending. He did this on his own. Now the taxpayer has to suffer the consequence," said Tee.

IEPA identified the following concerns with the sampling and remediation work performed at the Brighton Park site:

  • 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.

"My administration is committed to keeping asylum seekers safe as we work to help them achieve independence," said Pritzker. "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 state says it will go back to the drawing board and plans to reconsider housing migrants in a shuttered CVS located at 26th and Pulaski in Little Village. There, 200 beds would be available to families and people with disabilities.

Pritzker said he is also working with the Archdiocese of Chicago to explore other housing options.

More questions than answers remain about the site – including how much money was already spent on the encampment, when equipment that’s been installed will be removed, and what will transpire with the city’s lease on the land. The city is currently paying nearly $92,000 per month to lease the lot.

Meantime, the number of migrants awaiting shelter placement now hovers around 600. Roughly 450 individuals are still living at police districts, while approximately 160 others are staying at O’Hare.

According to city officials, 13 police districts have been fully decompressed, including District 18 where migrant tents crowded the sidewalks in recent weeks.

Since August 2022, Chicago has welcomed more than 24,000 new arrivals.