Ameren pleased with gas plant site investigation

Ameren pleased with gas plant site investigation

CHAMPAIGN – Contamination from a former manufactured gas plant at Fifth and Hill streets has spread off site in all four directions, but generally by less than 100 feet and only 150 feet at its furthest point, according to AmerenIP.

Ameren officials said they were pleased with the findings of their latest site investigation report, which came after they drilled 45 new soil borings around and on the 3.5-acre site this past April and May. Results showed that the contamination has not spread far and most of it is at least three feet underground, where the public is less likely to be exposed through inhalation of dust or direct contact with soil, said Brian Martin, an Ameren consulting environmental scientist.

Martin said that while contact with the contaminated soil could pose dangers, there's "a lack of exposure" to neighborhood residents because the plant site itself is fenced off to the public and off-site contamination is mostly several feet underground.

"If you're not exposed, there's no toxic effects," he said. "Although it's something we'll have to deal with, it's not an immediate health concern."

Stan Black, a community response analyst with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, said the state agency agrees with Ameren's conclusion.

"We're all in agreement that though these contaminants are clearly present, the public is not in a position where they will be exposed," he said. "The data has shown this very clearly."

A cleanup of the site, which could cost up to $15 million, is scheduled to begin in early- to mid-2009 and will likely take two or three years, Martin said.

Ameren is also ordering soil gas testing of three homes near the site, which Martin said should take place next month. The tests will make sure that gases from some volatile chemicals contained in the ground, such as benzene, aren't being released into the air and into the homes, where they could pose a cancer hazard.

Studies have shown that workers continually exposed to benzene fumes develop leukemia at a higher rate than the general population, said Black.

Ameren declined to disclose the addresses of the residences that will be tested, but officials said two of the homes are northwest of the old plant site and one is due west. Permission from the property owners has been obtained, they said.

"It's just a precaution," said Martin. "I'm pretty comfortable we won't find anything. We just want to put the public's mind at ease."

Martin and other Ameren officials and consultants spoke Monday evening at a community open house at Booker T. Washington Elementary School, 606 E. Grove St, C, attended by about 45 residents. Before the open house, Ameren officials met with the media at the Douglass Branch of the Champaign Public Library.

The manufactured gas plant operated from 1869 to the early 1930s, making gas for heating, lighting and cooking out of coal. After the 1930s, the plant was used to meet peak demand into the 1950s.

One of the byproducts from the plant was coal tar, which contains a number of chemical compounds, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon compounds, or PAHs, and volatile organic compounds, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. The coal tar was left on site after the plant closed, though a partial cleanup took place in the 1990s.

The latest testing included 36 off-site soil borings and nine borings along the perimeter of the fenced-off site. The farthest the contamination had spread was about 150 feet north of the site. That contamination was 10 or more feet underground.

For the most part, the off-site borings showed no contamination in the top three feet of soil. However, five samples in the top three feet of soil along the railroad right of way north of the site tested positive for PAHs, as did one test boring along Fifth Street west of the plant site. Two soil borings east of the plant site also showed contamination in the top three feet of soil.

Ameren officials said they think the topsoil near the railroad right of way was not contaminated by the manufactured gas plant, but possibly from the railroad ties, which are treated with coal tar as a preservative. Ameren will clean up the contaminated soil there regardless, Martin added.

Ameren will likely use three different methods to clean up the site, Martin said. They will comprise soil removal, soil containment, such as installing a clay cap, and injecting chemicals into the soil to destroy the volatile organic compounds and other contaminants. A final cleanup plan is still being developed.

Thirteen of the soil borings were converted into test wells to determine whether groundwater contamination had also spread off site, Martin said. One well, to the immediate south of the site, showed contaminants, he said. However, three wells drilled futher south of the contaminated well tested clean.

An Ameren consultant, PSC of Columbia, Ill., continued drilling soil borings around the plant site perimeter until borings showed no contamination, indicating the full extent of the contamination, Black and Martin said.

Company's report greeted with skepticism

CHAMPAIGN – More than 40 people jammed a community open house Monday at Booker T. Washington Elementary School, where they heard AmerenIP officials and consultants assure them that a former manufactured gas plant site at Fifth and Hill streets does not pose an immediate health threat – even though new soil boring tests show that contamination has spread beyond the former plant site and into the surrounding neighborhood.

Residents did not appear reassured by Ameren officials' promises that the contaminants, which include the carcinogen benzene, do not pose an immediate health threat to them.

"I don't believe their answers," said resident Paulette Coleman. "They're just talking in circles right now."

Coleman had asked Ameren officials if one of her children, whom she leaves at a home day-care center near the 3.5-acre plant site, is in danger being near the site 40 hours or more per week.

Brian Martin, an Ameren consulting environmental scientist, responded that the soil in the yard where the day care center is located had been tested. Contaminants were found, he said, but they were 10 feet deep and don't pose a risk to her child, he said.

Lillian Driver, who lives on Hill Street and operates a home day care center, questioned why it had taken so long to clean up the north Champaign site and why a similar site in Charleston is slated to be cleaned up this year.

"I'm concerned because I live there," she told The News-Gazette. "It makes me nervous to even think about it."

Magnolia Cook, 310 E. Hill St., complained that Ameren hasn't done an adequate job informing the surrounding community about the status of the pending cleanup. She said she was especially alarmed when she saw men in protective suits with masks on doing tests.

"What if I came into your community with a mask on and a suit, wouldn't you be concerned?" she said.

Martin said the men in the protective suits were in direct contact with the contaminated soil and do such work on an ongoing basis, so they wear protection. He also disputed the charge that Ameren and its predecessor, Illinois Power, had not kept the community informed, saying he has been involved with the local site since 1991.

"We did explain it at an open house, much like this one," he said.

Martin also said that Illinois Power did a partial cleanup of the site in 1997, removing coal tar that had been stored in underground pits that were 18 feet deep and 55 feet wide to prevent further contamination. A considerable amount of topsoil was also removed during that cleanup, he said.

Ameren says it plans to clean up the former plant site at Fifth and Hill streets, starting early next year.





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