Hundreds of facilities statewide deal with low-level radioactive waste -- contaminated leftovers from doctor's offices, manufacturers and power plants. While the radioactive waste may be called "low level," it causes high anxiety for some of the people who know about it, and is supposed to be tightly regulated for public safety.
"People should know about it," said Mark Sodetz, Tinley Park neighbor.
Behind a peaceful neighborhood in south suburban Tinley Park, radioactive waste broker Adco Services has quietly dealt in contaminated byproducts for decades. With playgrounds, schools and daycares just down the street, neighbors had no idea it was there.
"No, I did not know about any type of waste material," said Sodetz.
Adco takes radioactive byproducts from hundreds of local producers and transports it to a final resting place. Earlier this year, state investigators shut down the company's hot waste brokerage business, citing concerns about the company's finances and waste storage. Adco is supposed to store radioactive waste for less than 180 days, but instead kept it there for years -- some more than a decade.
"They were storing the waste longer than they should have been, they were accepting waste when they shouldn't have been. We tried to work through the administrative procedures in our regulations to bring them back to compliance. Obviously if there were an imminent public safety threat and concern, we would have stepped in a lot sooner," said Michael Klebe, Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
But after our interview, state records obtained by the I-Team under the Freedom of Information Act show Adco has been in violation of multiple state nuclear regulations for years, and not just paperwork problems.
In 2004, Adco overlooked the training requirement for its housekeeping staff, allowing uninformed janitors to work around radioactive material. In 2007, contaminated items were shipped to a scrap yard in Cicero, where the radiation monitor was tripped. In 2008, the facility even reported a radioactive contamination incident and still kept its license. In 2011, one of the company's managers pleaded guilty to stealing scrap metal from the business and selling it.
So, despite 70 violations and more than $200,000 in fines during 20 years, the state of Illinois allowed Adco to operate with radioactive material. State officials maintain that despite problems, there was never "an immediate threat to public health or safety."
"It's like anything else, if things are properly maintained, taken care of, whatever, it works fine. You get people who are irresponsible or accidental things happen, natural disasters. Low level can turn into a nightmare," said Dave Kraft, Nuclear Energy Information Service.
Adco's president declined an interview, referring the I-Team to state emergency management officials who are now searching for a vendor that can transport thousands of pounds of leftover nuclear waste to somewhere else.
"This is a very dangerous genie we've let out of the bottle, and it's the kind of thing where you really have to be much more vigilant," said Kraft.
It is the producers of radioactive waste who are ultimately responsible for proper disposal, the medical and manufacturing facilities. So, some of them, the former Adco customers, can expect phone calls from state regulators that a surprise radioactive return may be on the way soon.