Champaign council shows support for aquifer proposal

CHAMPAIGN — There was no official vote, but city council members on Tuesday generally approved of a proposal to ask the federal government for more stringent protection of the Mahomet Aquifer, a natural underground reservoir that serves as the source of drinking water for roughly 700,000 people across central Illinois.

Although the application itself would not necessarily affect Clinton Landfill, which is working toward a plan to bury potentially harmful chemicals in a DeWitt County waste facility, the landfill was the impetus for the application. City officials have been trying to block Clinton Landfill from accepting polychlorinated biphenyls.

"The clock is ticking, and the other sources of water are zero," said Mayor Don Gerard.

Clinton Landfill officials have maintained that the cell they have built to hold the PCBs meets or exceeds all federal standards and would safely contain the chemicals for hundreds of years.

If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approves the application, it would add another layer of review to some federally funded projects that may affect the aquifer: potentially, major highway improvement projects, public water supply improvements, wastewater treatment facilities, projects that involve animal wastes, and some rural housing construction projects, according to the EPA website.

The EPA may deny federal funding for a project if it poses a risk of contamination to a sole-source aquifer and the project organizer refuses to remove the risks. The action would only block the funding — a project's organizer could still move forward if it chooses.

"There's a natural nervousness, I think, when you talk about federal review," said City Manager Steve Carter. But he said none of information city officials have seen leads them to believe that it has been a problem around other sole-course aquifers in the country.

A sole-source designation would not affect a project if no federal funds are involved and if the project is not directly over the Mahomet Aquifer, said Al Wehrmann, a groundwater hydrologist from Layne Hydro, which a group of cities have hired to prepare the sole-source application.

"We're really talking about physical alterations that might contaminate the aquifer," Wehrmann said.

Wehrman said he plans to turn the application over to the city sometime next week. Then city officials will submit it to the EPA, which will spend at least six months reviewing it.

Public hearings will be a part of the EPA's review process, and city officials are urging anyone interested to attend those sessions, contact the U.S. EPA region 5 office, or contact state and federal legislators.

"Public participation is the main form of support they're going to be looking for," said city recycling coordinator Angela Adams.

One member of the audience thanked city officials for simply taking action.

"You talk about an uphill battle," said George Wissmiller, who has been active in a campaign to block Clinton Landfill's plans for years. "This has been standing, facing a cliff until the city of Champaign got involved."

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