City reviewer finds no health threat at site

City reviewer finds no health threat at site

CHAMPAIGN – An independent report commissioned by the city of Champaign concludes there's no immediate health threat at the site of a former gas manufacturing plant.

Environmental consultant Nicholas Schneider based his findings on data collected so far from the 3.5-acre site at Fifth and Hill streets, AmerenIP's site investigation report and the utility's cleanup plan.

Still to come are the results of soil and water tests in the neighborhood around the former plant, which will show how far contaminants have spread.

That report is expected by early July.

"The site is environmentally safe at the surface. We don't know what's below," Schneider told residents and activists at a neighborhood meeting convened by the city Thursday night. "The city is going to follow through on this."

The city hired Schneider to take an independent look at the highly technical reports from Ameren because there was no one on staff who could properly interpret the data, said Dorothy David, assistant city manager.

Schneider will also review future reports from AmerenIP and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which is overseeing cleanup. The cost will not exceed $17,500, David said.

"I think of it as kind of an audit," added Assistant City Engineer Eleanor Blackmon. "There's a lot of people talking about this.

"You have one side saying one thing, and one side saying another," she said.

Schneider, who works for Rapps Engineering and Applied Science Inc. in Mahomet, said AmerenIP did a thorough job of evaluating risks on the site itself, calling the reports "competent and complete."

"(T)here does not appear to be any immediate threat to human health or environment in the neighborhood," his report said.

But it criticizes the utility for not explaining that to the community in an understandable way, requiring them to have "more than a basic understanding of the subject and the science behind that subject" to understand the reports.

On Thursday, he also cautioned activists who have raised concerns about potential health threats to be sure of their facts before going public.

"A report based on innuendo and rumor doesn't do anybody any good," he said.

Claudia Lenhoff of the Fifth and Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign said afterward she was gratified the city is taking an oversight role in the process, and that residents' concerns are being taken seriously.

But she thinks it's "premature" to say no health threat exists.

Schneider's report was narrowly focused on the surface of the site itself, she noted. Neighbors are more concerned about what might be on their own property, and the long-term health effects from potential exposure over many years, she said.

"We know that we're dealing with toxic chemicals. We don't know the extent of the contamination or exposure," she said.

The plant, which manufactured gas from coal, operated from roughly 1869 to 1933. A byproduct of the manufacturing process, coal tar, was stored in wells there for decades.

Coal tar contains a stew of volatile compounds referred to as BTEX – benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene – found in petroleum products.

Previous testing has shown that benzene and other compounds have contaminated soil and shallow groundwater in the area.

AmerenIP removed the coal tar and at least some of the underground wells in the 1990s, covering the site with several feet of clean topsoil. Officials have said they hope to begin a multimillion-dollar cleanup of the site by next year.

In the meantime neighbors asked that warning signs be put up, fearing for the safety of children who might get inside the fence.

EPA toxicologists retested the soil in April and found no significant cancer risk from exposure to soil, so the agency decided against the signs.

The city and EPA will convene another neighborhood meeting once the off-site test report is complete, said Stan Black, the EPA's community relations coordinator.

"At the moment we have no reason to think you are in danger if you work nearby or you live nearby," Black said.