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Cook County Highway Department accused of dumping waste
Inspector general finds mounds of contaminants at Riverdale, Palatine sites

Thursday, December 22, 2011
Chicago Tribune
by Erika Slife

For years, Cook County highway workers have been dumping roadway and sewer waste at two work yards, creating large mounds that potentially could be contaminating the environment, according to a watchdog report released Wednesday.

The pollutants include gasoline, oil, antifreeze and other chemicals that county workers collect while sweeping roadways and cleaning sewers, Inspector General Patrick Blanchard's report states. The workers then dump the waste on Highway Department property, creating huge toxic piles that could potentially cause runoff and contaminate the surrounding soil and sewage systems, according to the report.

Board President Toni Preckwinkle said she has the report, but didn't offer specifics on how she would deal with the mounds of pollutants at county sites in Riverdale and Palatine.

"We are putting our entire process under review. We will be working to determine the extent of any environmental problems and with new leadership, will be rectifying any noncompliance," Preckwinkle said in a statement.

The Highway Department has long been considered a patronage dumping ground in county government and a problem Preckwinkle needed to address.

In July, Preckwinkle accepted the resignation of predecessor Todd Stroger's highway superintendent, Rupert Graham Jr. Earlier this month, the County Board approved Preckwinkle's replacement of Graham with John Yonan, former deputy commissioner and chief engineer for the Chicago Department of Transportation. Yonan still needs to pass a state test before he can be confirmed.

"As a first step, we are putting in place a change in leadership at the start of the new year," said Preckwinkle, who just completed her first year in office. "We have hired a new superintendent whose first priority will be to tackle the issues that need to be addressed in the (inspector general's) report."

Blanchard noted that the federal Environmental Protection Agency recommends that street sweeping programs should include proper storage and disposal of waste. Blanchard's report also stated that county workers repeatedly were skirting state inspections of county vehicles because of a severe shortage of working equipment.

For example, workers would replace worn tires on vehicles with tires from cars that had already passed inspection, or pull fire extinguishers from cars and put them in the vehicles that were about to be inspected.

"The (office of the inspector general) learned that in order to maximize the number of certified vehicles in the fleet, the Highway Department uses a limited supply of interchangeable equipment to pass safety inspections," Blanchard wrote.

Other vehicles were simply being used with expired inspection stickers, Blanchard's office found.

Preckwinkle said she's working on the issues.

"The IG's site inspections have revealed a pattern of waste and mismanagement that can be rectified through a series of internal controls, additional monitoring and attention to compliance with local and federal regulations," Preckwinkle said.




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