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Superfund Project: EPA to spend $1.2 million on Cairo hospital cleanup

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Superfund Project: EPA to spend $1.2 million on Cairo hospital cleanup
U.S. EPA workers use a detector to search for mercury left behind in one of the rooms of the hospital Tuesday in Cairo. Mercury remnants must be cleared before asbestos removal. (STEVE JAHNKE/THE SOUTHERN)

CAIRO - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will spend $1.2 million to clean up a Cairo hospital abandoned for two decades.

The Southern Medical Center at the corner of Cedar and Pine streets closed its doors in 1987, leaving much of the medical equipment behind. Since then, the 53,000-square-foot building has been a haven for vandals and squatters and contains a heavy amount of asbestos, health officials said.

USEPA Chicago spokesman Mick Hans said Illinois EPA officials contacted the federal agency about the medical center last winter, asking for assistance.

Officials have put together the $1.2 million into a Superfund project. The state is contributing roughly 10 percent of the total, Hans said. A Superfund site is one that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment, the USEPA Web site states.

Built into the Superfund program, however, is an enforcement program designed to identify past owners of the medical center in an attempt to collect some reimbursement for the cleanup.

Since it opened in 1951 as St. Mary's Hospital, the facility has been owned by several groups, including the Catholic Church.

Kevin Turner, the federal EPA's on-site manager for the project, said it's not likely the agency will go after the church for money but said a list would be compiled all parties potentially responsible for paying the cost.

Top priority is getting the building cleaned up of contaminates, such as asbestos, mercury and other hazardous materials. The asbestos is from building material now outdated while the mercury is waste from medical equipment.

"We are removing the hazardous materials associated with the building, and when we're done with it, it will be empty," Turner said.

The facility should be cleaned out by July, he added, but said it won't be torn down.

Angela Greenwell, an Alexander County commissioner and former employee of Southern Medical Center, said she is happy the building is being cleaned because of the inherent dangers it poses to the neighborhood, including the Daystar assisted living center across the street.

But the structure seems beyond repair at this point, and she said she'd like to see it knocked down in the future.

"When people pass this ghost of a facility they are reminded of the deterioration that has come about in Cairo," Greenwell said.

She hopes to one day have the full block the medical center sits on cleared to make way for a larger assisted living facility to help the city's aging population.

caleb.hale@thesouthern.com

351-5090

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