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Lead levels too high in Pilsen, early EPA study finds

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 Map: Proposed violation area

Updated: October 16, 2011 12:17AM

A two-mile by two-mile section of the city that includes Pilsen does not meet the nation’s air quality standard for lead, according to a preliminary determination released Wednesday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

If the area is formally designated by the EPA to be in violation of national health standards in October, the state will be required to submit a lead-reduction plan by 2013.

“The fact that there are elevated lead levels in a neighborhood in Chicago is of concern,” said Cheryl Newton, director of the U.S. EPA’s Region 5 Air and Radiation Division. “This is the first step in a process that will reduce those levels and will bring healthy air quality back to the neighborhood.”

The proposed “non-attainment” area is bounded by Roosevelt Road to the north, the Dan Ryan Expy. to the east, the Stevenson Expy. to the south and Damen Avenue to the west.

Those boundaries were recommended by the Illinois EPA earlier this month based on air samples it collected last year at a Pilsen elementary school.

The school, Manuel Perez Jr. Elementary, is in close proximity to a smelter that the state EPA has said is the primary contributor to elevated lead levels in the area.

A spokesman for the H. Kramer and Co. Smelter declined to comment.

Even low levels of lead exposure can impair a child’s IQ, memory and learning capabilities.

The U.S. EPA adopted a new air quality standard for lead in 2008 that is 10 times lower than the previous one.

The only other part of Illinois that has been found to exceed the new standard is in the vicinity of a steel mill in Granite City.

The EPA announcement came the same day Pilsen residents held a rally to call attention to air pollution in their neighborhood that they blame on the Kramer and Co. smelter and Midwest Generation’s Fisk coal-fired plant.

Jerry Mead-Lucero, a community activist who lives in Pilsen, said the EPA findings, while not surprising, validate what residents have been saying for years. “It’s disturbing to know what we’ve always known, which is that this neighborhood has been dealing with some serious problems when it comes to pollution,” he said.

Last month, a group of Greenpeace activists were arrested after they climbed the smokestack of the Fisk plant as part of an anti-coal protest.

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