Day Care Needed, But Site Could Be Dangerous

The debate over a proposed day care center outside Chicago is a microcosm of contending work, family, health, safety and environmental issues. Parents and employees want it, but officials say the industrial site could be dangerous.

ELK GROVE VILLAGE, Ill. (WOMENSENEWS)-Village authorities here in the shadow of O'Hare International Airport are asking a tough question: Does the need for quality day care outweigh the potential dangers of locating a child care center within a huge industrial park that regularly processes hazardous materials?

At issue is a corporate day care center that would be built by Material Sciences Corp., a steel reprocessing company that operates in one of the nation's largest industrial parks. The company envisioned the center as an employee perk. Village officials see it as a disaster waiting to happen. Parents have been patient; in the meantime, they have had to find other day care services.

“We're talking about kids here,” said a frustrated Mary Dinkle, director of environmental safety and health for the company, which has 430 employees. “They're talking about precedents.”

The 5.5 square-mile industrial park accommodates 3,800 firms; every day about 100,000 people come and go. The industries use and generate flammable liquids, toxins and corrosives, including cyanide, sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid.

After more than seven months of back-and-forth, plans for the center remain stalled. The company cannot proceed until the Elk Grove Village Fire Department is satisfied that the company has a plan for safeguarding an expected 70 infants, toddlers and young children in the event of a major fire or hazardous materials accident. Assistant Fire Chief Michael Lackman admits, however, that there never has been a major incident at the site and none of the smaller incidents would have affected the children at the center.

The Problem: How to Safeguard 70 Kids?

“I recognize the need for quality day care for people who work, and the closer to the point of work, the better,” Lackman said. “But we are in the business of anticipating problems. [If there is a problem,] how do we get 70 kids out of harm's way?”

The department is particularly concerned that, in the event of a serious emergency, personnel can focus on dealing with the emergency, and not be distracted by the need to protect 70 infants and children and calm 70 sets of worried parents, Lackman said.

The day care operator, Bright Horizons Family Solutions, already has worked out solutions to those problems, said Ilene Hoffer, director of public affairs for the publicly held company.

“Any time we propose to open a center, we already have done our own comprehensive analysis of the hazards, benefits and the environmental health and safety issues related to that site. We wouldn't propose something in a site that we felt was unsafe. It wouldn't be in our best interests, in the children's best interests or the employer's best interests,” she said.

Bright Horizons, based in Watertown, Mass., operates more than 330 day care centers in 36 states, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Guam, including a handful located inside industrial parks. While Hoffer admitted that efforts to open the Elk Grove Village center have taken longer than most, she refused to point fingers at the village officials.

“We understand that this may be a new process for them. It's a matter of them educating us to their concerns and us educating them to our experience,” she said.

Industrial Park Has Never Had a Major Accident

Meeting the concerns of the Fire Department may not turn out to be the last hurdle for the day care center. Village officials still might discuss whether a day care center even belongs inside an industrial park-even one that has met a host of safety requirements, has put in place a sufficient evacuation plan and has never had a major accident.

“I understand the frustration that Material Sciences has,” said Mayor Craig Johnson. “They're trying to do something good for their employees. But government has some responsibility to protect the interests of minors. We want to make sure we're overly protective.”

The village already has forced changes to the center design. Extra insulation was required to mute the noise from the jets taking off and landing at O'Hare. The ventilation system was upgraded to filter out harmful industrial emissions. And security access to the facility was strengthened to ensure none of the 100,000 strangers who come and go daily from the area would get into the day care center without authorization.

At each juncture, Material Sciences has gone back to the drawing board, changing specifications and developing evacuation plans. Even now, Dinkle is unsure whether the center ever will be built.

“I have gone the full continuum, from ‘Yes, it's going to happen,' to ‘No, it's not going to happen.' Now, I'm just taking it one step at a time,' she said.

It's a far cry from a year ago, when the company told employees it planned to build the center. Then, Material Sciences was so confident that its plans would be approved-particularly after an initial okay from the village planning commission-that it purchased the plot of land across the street from the plant. The center was supposed to open this month, January 2001.

If the day care center plans ultimately are approved, it will take as long as a year to build and open the facility.

“The employees have been more understanding than we expected them to be. But then, the infants are one year old now. They've already found other day care,” Dinkle said.

Cindy Richards is a free-lance writer in Chicago. As a reporter and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, she covered a variety of beats. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1991.