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City studies how to clear lead pollution from Fourth Street junkyard

A car drives by the shuttered Protano Auto Parts on South Fourth Street in DeKalb on Sept. 5.
A car drives by the shuttered Protano Auto Parts on South Fourth Street in DeKalb on Sept. 5.

DeKALB – Nikki Griffith is used to the dilapidated Protano Auto Parts buildings down the block from her house. But that doesn’t mean she’d be sad to see them go.

By the end of this summer, her hopes could be closer to reality as city officials investigate ways to clean up pollution on the property.

Although city leaders have decided against establishing a special taxing district to improve several blocks along South Fourth Street, they said there’s still hope for one of the area’s development deterrents, Protano Auto Parts.

City officials are completing the second phase of their environmental assessment of the site at 1151 S. Fourth St.

“Hopefully by the summer we will know what is there,” DeKalb principal planner Derek Hiland said. “We will know how much contamination is there and what it will take to clean it up.”

City officials had investigated establishing a tax increment financing district along Fourth Street from Taylor Street to Fairlane Avenue, which would have included the Protano property and allowed the city to offer incentives to developers interested in cleaning up and redeveloping it. They voted against creating a TIF district at their March 10 meeting in part because prospects for redevelopment in the area were deemed unlikely to generate enough revenue to cover the cost of needed improvements.

Fifth Ward Alderman Ron Naylor, whose district includes properties on the west side of Fourth Street that would have been included in the TIF district, thought the special designation would have helped the area.

“I was disappointed the TIF district didn’t go through,” said Naylor, who was absent from the meeting when the council voted not to proceed with the plan. “But the city hasn’t given up on re-energizing that area. We are not going to back away from it.”

Work on the site has been ongoing since the early 2000s. The city has evaluated the history of the site to determine what kind of contaminants could be there based on the site’s former use as an auto junkyard, Hiland said.

The Environmental Protection Agency also conducted a brief investigation in 2004 that found uncovered a large pile of discarded auto parts and indicated the site had been used to burn cars in the 60s and 70s. The EPA’s report concluded the site contained some lead contamination in shallow soil.

Jim Mergen, the EPA project manager on the site, said the contamination is likely limited to the site, and cautioned that people should not venture on to the property or ingest any of the soil.

Mergen advised the city in 2011to further study the property before any cleanup efforts could proceed.

“There’s nobody around here that doesn’t want to resolve it,” Mergen said.

That study is underway, Hiland said. Once the latest assessment is done, the city could apply for state or federal funding to assist with cleanup but would have to own the property to be eligible for any funding, according to Mike Charles with the Illinois EPA’s office of Brownfield Assistance.

The property is currently owned by the Protano estate, which Hiland said the city has been working with in the assessment process.

A resolution for the property can’t come soon enough, said Dalena Kemna-Kahn, administrator for Pine Acres Rehabilitation Center, which is adjacent to Protano’s. She said her facility installed a fence about five years ago because the one on the Protano property was so dilapidated that it no longer screened the view of the mess.

“Even a maintained empty lot would be a tremendous upgrade,” Kemna-Kahn said. “Having it there makes it hard for any other business to locate here.”

In the meantime, neighbors such as Griffith will continue living with the dilapidated buildings down the street while city leaders try to implement a plan.

“I’d like them to tear it down,” Griffith said. “I think it would help with development.”

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