Report: Contamination found off site of coal gasification plant

Report: Contamination found off site of coal gasification plant

CHAMPAIGN – A neighborhood-rights campaign continues to put pressure on AmerenIP to clean up a contaminated former manufactured-gas plant site at Fifth and Hill streets, contending the site poses a greater health risk than is being presented to the public.

Meanwhile, AmerenIP officials say that a nearly completed site-investigation report, already presented to the state in draft form, shows that contamination of soil and groundwater has spread off-site to the north, east and west, with off-site groundwater contamination to the south.

The report, prepared by PSC of Columbia for Ameren, concludes that there "is minimal potential for exposure to individuals within and outside of the remediation site for the constituents of concern."

Off-site contamination appears "greater in concentration and area to the north and west of the site," the report added.

An AmerenIP official said the results are not a surprise and that some of the contamination near the ground surface probably didn't even come from the gas plant, which made gas out of coal and operated between 1869 and the early 1930s, and then was used to meet peak demand into the 1950s.

"We found pretty much what we expected," said Brian Martin, an Ameren consulting environmental scientist. "There was some limited off-site contamination. The bulk of what we found was subsurface, below 3 feet, where people aren't likely to have contact with it."

An Ameren news release indicated that only one soil boring done off-site, in the Fifth Street right-of-way north of Hill Street, showed contamination within 3 feet of the surface, where contaminants like benzene could be inhaled or ingested.

But the draft site-investigation report, available at the Champaign City Building, showed nine instances where chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, also known as polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs, were found within 3 feet of the surface. Asked to explain the discrepancy, Martin said that two of the soil borings that showed contamination were actually at the west edge of the Ameren plant site, and that a number of the other borings that showed surface contamination were found near railroad tracks north of the plant site.

Railroad ties contain creosote, which contains coal tar, and therefore it's not surprising the surface soil borings near the tracks might not meet the strict testing standard that was used, Martin said.

"It's not surprising to find PAHs in the railroad right-of-way, but we don't think they came from us," he said.

Martin said AmerenIP does intend in coming months to test three off-site properties to determine if gases containing contaminants might be entering the buildings. He declined to disclose the addresses, saying property owners had yet to be contacted.

The off-site soil borings also showed eight instances where metals, such as lead, chromium or arsenic, were found in the top 3 feet of soil. Martin said the metal found was lead and that Ameren does not believe that the former plant site was the source of the lead, which he said is naturally occurring in soil.

Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris said a multi-million dollar cleanup of the Fifth and Hill site will take place next year.

Meanwhile, about 40 residents attended a meeting Thursday evening at the Douglass Annex, where leaders of the 5th and Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign gave a presentation detailing their concerns about the plant site.

Claudia Lennhoff, executive director of Champaign County Health Care Consumers, said the coalition wants AmerenIP to put up warning signs around the former plant site to dissuade people from coming into contact with contaminated soil or water; demands more testing to determine the outer limits of where the contamination has spread into the neighborhood; and demands that Ameren officials hold a community presentation about the status of the cleanup and answer questions from residents.

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