In the middle of a commercial and residential area of Waukegan, about 42 miles north of Chicago, sits 70 acres of empty land dotted with wooden posts bearing poison gas monitors.
This is Yeoman Creek Landfill, a former dumping ground for hazardous waste from homes and industry in the 1950s and 1960s. For decades it was a Federal Superfund site – home to hazardous waste that has mismanaged enough to warrant intervention by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
But now it’s eyeing a second life as a renewable energy facility.
Cleanup to deal with high levels of methane and other toxic gases is largely complete, though the EPA is still monitoring the site.
The estate isn’t suitable for many things, but for Paul Curran it’s a business opportunity. His New York-based company, BQ Energy, is installing 20,000 solar panels at the Yeoman Creek site. He said it’s a 10 million dollar project.
Curran said many Superfund sites, also known as “brownfields,” are ideal candidates for renewable energy facilities.
“You don’t want parks or houses or any type of public access on those types of properties,” Curran said. “But solar needs a lot of real estate. We need places with sun that [don’t] lots of trees or other obstacles.”
Waukegan Mayor Ann Taylor is excited to redevelop the Yeoman Creek property.
“It’s a good thing to do because you’re limited on what you can do on these sites,” she said.
There is at least one other Superfund site in Waukegan that is a candidate for the same type of redevelopment. But Taylor said the next project doesn’t have to be solar. It will depend on what officials hear from the public.
“What I want to do is allow people to come to us with ideas,” she said. “I don’t want to tell people what I want.”
Cam Davis saw the importance of local participation in decisions about how to repurpose toxic waste sites. In the 1990s, Davis served on the Citizens’ Advisory Group for the Superfund-led cleanup in Waukegan Harbor. He has seen this project unfold over the years, and now the site has largely returned to normal function.
He compared the process of community engagement in a cleanup to a patient standing up for themselves in a health care setting — the patient ends up with a better outcome.
“When we have a really engaged audience, those cleanups tend to go better,” Davis said. “Agencies tend to do their jobs better.”
The Yeoman Creek Landfill has significant limitations as to how it can be redeveloped. Landfill gas still underground at the site means it is not possible to dig up the ground.
But it is still possible to put things on it, like solar panels.
And this idea is gaining more and more traction across the country. Curran’s company, which has built 19 renewable energy sites across the country and is working on 28 more, is struggling to keep up with demand.
“Unfortunately, there are enough brownfields and landfills in the country that we are turning down more properties and more projects than we are doing,” he said.
The Yeoman Creek solar panels are expected to start operating in 2023 and produce enough electricity for around 1,000 homes each year.
Caroline Kubzansky covers the Statehouse for WBEZ. Am here @CKubzansky.