Group threatens suit against Champaign

Group threatens suit against Champaign

UPDATED 4:25 p.m.

CHAMPAIGN — City officials have at least two months to respond to a letter from a health care advocacy group threatening to sue if the city does not remedy a pipe that the group says is dumping hazardous waste into the Boneyard Creek.

Champaign County Health Care Consumers executive director Claudia Lennhoff said the group found on city property next to the Boneyard Creek a discharge pipe, which she thinks likely is left over from the former site of a coal gasification plant near the intersection of Fifth and Hill streets.

City attorney Fred Stavins said his department received the 60-day notice of intent to sue on Wednesday afternoon and it is not clear at this point what the next steps are for the city.

"What they seem to be alleging is that we’ve discharged pollutants into a navigable body of water. ... I’m not exactly certain why they’re saying the city is responsible," Stavins said.

It is possible that city engineers will do their own investigation of the pipe and then determine how to proceed, Stavins said.

The history of the pipe is vague, Lennhoff said, but the contents of its residue are what she would expect to find as leftovers from a coal gasification plant like the one Ameren Illinois is working to cleanup. That plant, which has long been razed, generated energy by using a chemical process that left pollutants like coal tar and benzene.

Lennhoff said the residue from the pipe is getting into the Boneyard Creek, and the city is violating the federal Clean Water Act by allowing the pipe to exist on city property.

"Of course, we hope not to sue," Lennhoff said, but as far as she is concerned, that would require some action by the city before the 60-day deadline.

Lennhoff made the group’s intentions to sue public during a city council meeting on Tuesday night, when the council was discussing a related ordinance that the group contends lets Ameren avoid some of the cleanup responsibilities at the Fifth and Hill site.

The city council voted nearly unanimously in support of a partial repeal of that ordinance, with the only "no" vote coming from Marci Dodds, who said it should have been repealed entirely.

The city’s "groundwater restriction ordinance" prohibits residents from drilling potable water wells in areas where groundwater may be contaminated by harmful materials.

Speakers on Tuesday night, many of whom were driven to the meeting out of fear for their own health, pointed to the former site of the coal gasification plant as a source of contamination. They said groundwater traveling from underneath that site into the surrounding residential neighborhood is driving carcinogenic gases like benzene into their homes.

Ameren inherited the site through business deals and has been removing polluted soil from the property, and company officials have persistently said that the contamination at the site poses no threat to nearby residents.

Ameren has been voluntarily cleaning the site under the supervision and approval of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. In a plan the energy company submitted to the IEPA, Ameren cites the city’s groundwater restriction ordinance as a control over the groundwater — the logic being that if residents do not drink it, then it is not harmful — and the IEPA has said that is an adequate method.

Lennhoff said businesses tend to latch on to the ordinance as a tool to avoid the actual cleanup of polluted water. The Ameren site does not affect residents’ drinking water, which is pumped from the Mahomet Aquifer in a closed system, but opponents of the ordinance worry that vapors with their origin in the water are getting into homes near the site.

"The major concern for residents is the health impact over time of living at a toxic site," Lennhoff said.

That was enough to get the city council to begin considering companies that want to use the groundwater restriction ordinance to receive IEPA approval for a cleanup on a case-by-case basis. If the council denies the use of the ordinance by Ameren Illinois, the IEPA "would have the ability to go back and void that" approval, said Greg Dunn, the IEPA representative supervising the Ameren cleanup.

That would mean Ameren would need to come up with another method to address polluted groundwater if they hope to receive approval under the voluntary cleanup program, Dunn said.

That could apply to all agencies that might want to use the ordinance in the future, depending on how the city rewrites the ordinance. The details still need to be finalized and approved in a formal city council session.

The upside of the ordinance, according to city documents, is that it encourages voluntary cleanups that might not proceed if total removal of contaminants were required. It also allows for property sales and redevelopment that may have been blocked by the contamination.

"There is a societal cost to cleaning up toxic waste," said council member Tom Bruno. "I think the cost of cleaning it up is less than the probable cost of failing to clean it up."

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IU1977 wrote on February 09, 2011 at 6:02 pm

Hey Fred and Steve.................. do your jobs and fight this........... the City didnt cause this mess, so Fred actually find a court room and be a lawyer for once and fight this nonsense.

ronaldo wrote on February 09, 2011 at 9:02 pm

It's a good thing that Lennhoff is only speculating that "the contents of its residue are what she would expect to find as leftovers from a coal gasification plant", and didn't actually have any tests conducted to verify that this is the case. Why let that pesky evidence stuff get in the way of mere guesswork?

This ought to go far in the courts. (insert eyeroll here)

CU2011 wrote on February 10, 2011 at 11:02 am

Actually, Lennhoff is not merely speculating. The IL EPA was alerted back in August that historical documents showed the existence of an 8-inch clay pipe installed on the north end of the site along the railroad tracks that was used by the company to dump waste products including coal tar into the Boneyard Creek. The IL EPA and the city refused to investigate the claim so CCHCC staff walked over to the spot where the documents claimed that the pipe should be and found it within 5 minutes. Lennhoff took preliminary samples and sent them to the national experts that have been consulting with the 5th and Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign. Those samples contained a slew of toxic chemicals that were basically the footprint of a gas manufacturing plant. The experts came to Champaign to take official samples on Monday and, based on the look and smell of the black tar stuck to the bottom of the pipe and the oily sheen gurgling out of the Boneyard Creek, the experts said that they are sure that this is the pipe that they found described in the historical records. Because this pipe is on City property, it is the City's responsibility to stop the toxic chemicals from continuing to leach into this waterway that snakes throughout Champaign and Urbana. It puts all of us at risk of coming into contact with these dangerous toxins and I hope that this legal notice from CCHCC will make the City start taking the residents' concerns seriously and do whatever they can to protect our health.

ronaldo wrote on February 10, 2011 at 3:02 pm

I agree that if the sludge is found to be toxic then our waterways should be protected. But IF the sludge was tested and found to be, indeed, toxic, why was it not included in this story nor mentioned by Lennhoff?

Lennhoff wrote on February 12, 2011 at 8:02 am

I did tell the City Council that the materials we collected from the pipe had been tested and were toxic, and the results showed that the toxic chemicals formed a "footprint" for a former manufactured gas plant. In other words, they were exactly the chemicals you'd expect to find for discharge from a former manufactured gas plant. I presented a chart of the toxic chemicals from the pipe, and I also let the City Council know that testing showed that the black stuff at the bottom of the pipe that my co-worker and I collected was actual coal tar. Our environmental experts collected more material from the pipe last Monday and will have those materials tested as well, and we will share the test results with the City Council, the IL EPA, and the community. I don't have control over what gets reported in a newspaper article. Also, despite what was said in the newspaper article, the history of the pipe is not "vague" at all.

arlington wrote on February 11, 2011 at 8:02 am

details on posted picture of drain pipe? approx location and date?

Lennhoff wrote on February 12, 2011 at 8:02 am

The photo posted above is NOT of the pipe we found at the Boneyard Creek.

serf wrote on February 12, 2011 at 5:02 pm

I don't get the 'fight this nonsense' attitude? Isn't it a good idea to try to keep our waterways clean?

I, for one, am thankful that someone cares enough to do something about it. The question I have is what is the suggested recourse to fix the problem? Are we talking about a few feet of hydraulic cement shoved into the end of the pipe to keep it from continuing to empty into the Boneyard, or are we talking about digging up the entire north end of Champaign?