Whites flee radioactive cleanup site, replaced by Hispanics. And all say they were left in the dark about thorium problem that’s plagued the area for decades.

In the 17 years since she moved to her West Chicago home and raised three children, no one told Olivia Reza that much of her neighborhood had been excavated to remove cancer-causing radioactive thorium.

“It worries us,” Reza said in Spanish. “We wouldn’t have moved here if we knew.”

The same response is echoed by dozens of people living near the shuttered Kerr-McGee factory, many of whom these days are Latino.

They say no one explained that, during ongoing cleanups that began in the 1980s, the site has been used as a temporary holding facility for contaminated dirt.

No one told them that studies have shown elevated cancer rates in the area.

“We’ve never been told anything,” said Cecilia Sandoval, who bought her house in the neighborhood two years ago. “No one said anything then, and they haven’t said anything recently.”

Since 1980, when residents first began lobbying for a thorium cleanup, whites have left the neighborhood in droves; slightly more than half as many people now live there. At the same time, though, the number of Latinos has almost doubled, a Daily Herald analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows.

The number of whites has dropped from 8,947 to 2,988. At the same time, the Hispanic population has increased from 1,661 to 2,969.

It’s unclear whether Hispanics specifically were kept in the dark about the neighborhood’s history. Some say it’s simply a poor area to which low-income Hispanics have gravitated.

But white people, too, say they weren’t informed about the neighborhood’s past. And, an agreement among federal, state and city officials calls for non-disclosure of the thorium on deeds. That agreement was aimed at protecting property values from the stigma of a thorium label once the sites had been cleaned up.

Either way, Latinos are now clustered in one of the most toxic areas in West Chicago, an example of what some experts call classic environmental racism.

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