RANTOUL – The war in Iraq has affected the Air Force's ability to clean up Chanute Air Force Base, according to a state environmental leader responsible for remediation of federal sites in Illinois.
Clarence L. Smith, federal site remediation manager for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, told the Chanute Redevelopment Commission on Wednesday that Department of Defense money that otherwise would have gone toward the base's cleanup has been diverted toward the war effort.
"Budgetarily, it is clear that Air Force dollars for the cleanup are getting scarce," Smith said. "The United States war effort is soaking up a lot of cleanup dollars. It's tough all over."
The Air Force did not send any representatives to Wednesday's meeting.
An Air Force spokesman in San Antonio, who would not identify himself, would not comment but said that the Air Force plans to discuss the cleanup work at Chanute at a meeting at noon on May 17 at the Rantoul Corporate Technology Center, 601 S. Century Blvd., Rantoul.
Smith says he believes part of the problem at Chanute is that the Air Force may have been ineffective in proceeding with work to clean up Chanute during peace time, when money for such projects was more plentiful.
"A lot of money has been spent, and yet we haven't got a lot of cleanup work done," Smith said. "Sometimes we get as frustrated as the village does over the slow progress here."
The EPA has been at odds with the Air Force since January 2000, when the EPA proposed placing Chanute on the National Priorities List. Sites placed on the list would receive priority for cleanup funding ahead of non-listed sites.
The Air Force so far has opposed placing Chanute on the list.
Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration entered the debate when the Air Force tried to turn over the deeds to 616 acres at Chanute to the village.
Village Administrator David Johnston said Rantoul needs the approval from the FAA before it can accept any of the deeds.
Johnston said the airport won't qualify for more than $418,000 in federal airport improvement grants already announced for Rantoul until the FAA has assurances the property is environmentally clean.
The village is also seeking up to $400,000 in federal and state money to repair a rise in the middle of the airport's north-south runway.
At the request of the FAA, the Rantoul Village Board hired an engineering firm, Burns & McDonnell of Downers Grove, to conduct an independent environmental audit of Chanute.
Johnston said the audit will give Rantoul an independent evaluation of the former base's environmental conditions. Previous environmental studies have been conducted either by the Air Force or by contractors hired by the Air Force.
Johnston told the commission the audit won't be completed until June.
Smith said the worst environmental problems are in Chanute's southeast corner, where three out of four landfills have been capped.
"That's where the largest concentration of toxins are," Smith said.
Smith said there are "hot spots" of contaminants throughout the rest of the base.
"The biggest problems that we see are in many of the buildings left by the Air Force," he said. "Cleanup dollars under the Superfund don't address demolition needs."
"It is a sad, sad, heartbreaking sight," he said.
Meanwhile, Johnston said the Air Force has set a deadline to leave Chanute by the year 2012.
The discussion was part of the Chanute Redevelopment Commission's first joint meeting with the Rantoul Economic Development Commission.