City agrees to plug pipe near Boneyard

City agrees to plug pipe near Boneyard

CHAMPAIGN -- Responding to a threat of a lawsuit from a health care activist group, the city has agreed to plug a pipe near the Boneyard Creek that the group says is draining hazardous chemicals into the waterway.

And while the director of the health care group said she is pleased with the city's response, city officials repudiate allegations that the pipe poses any threat to the creek.

"In the end, what we care about is that the right steps are taken," said Claudia Lennhoff, executive director of Champaign County Health Care Consumers.

In February, the group filed a 60-day notice of intent to file a lawsuit under the Clean Water Act. That notice said the city was responsible for cutting off the discharge from the pipe, which the group claims holds carcinogenic coal tar residue originating from the former site of a coal gasification plant just a few blocks away.

The group alleged that storm water can make its way into the pipe and drain into the creek, rinsing the coal tar down with it.

The city's deadline to respond would have expired on Monday, but in a letter dated April 5, an assistant city attorney wrote that workers would excavate part of the pipe, plug it with concrete and replace the soil within 45 days.

"They're actually doing more than we anticipated they would do," Lennhoff said.

But in the same letter, the attorney wrote that "based on city staff's assessment of the pipe that you identify in the notice, we believe the Boneyard Creek is not impacted by this pipe outlet."

City Attorney Fred Stavins on Wednesday said he does not believe the Clean Water Act applies to the pipe because the pipe does not appear to be discharging anything.

"It's not operative," Assistant City Engineer Eleanor Blackmon said on Wednesday. "It's full of dirt."

Blackmon said the pipe was dry every time it was inspected, including following rain storms. Still, city officials decided to take the action requested by the health care group.

"It seems like the easiest way to solve the disagreement," Blackmon said.

In its response Wednesday, the health care group says it is satisfied with the city's action, so long as officials submit the excavated materials for environmental testing and that those results and other information be shared with Champaign County Health Care Consumers.

The group has been pressuring the city, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and Ameren Illinois to clean up toxic chemicals that it says a coal gasification plant left behind at the corner of Fifth and Hill streets (which has long-since been razed).

"It is progressing," Lennhoff said. "That's good, but it's going slowly."

The group claims the pipe extends all the way from the Fifth and Hill site, along the railroad tracks, to its alleged discharge point at the Boneyard Creek, north of the intersection of First and Washington streets. Lennhoff said her group's next move will be to pressure the EPA to investigate the rest of the pipe.

The resolution with the city comes just before Saturday's annual Boneyard Creek clean-up day, for which dozens of volunteers will remove trash and other debris from the creek and its banks.

Lennhoff and her group will be recommending that the volunteers wear boots and gloves.

"There's contamination that you can't see, that you can't pick up with your hand," she said.

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