CLINTON — Champaign County Board member Alan Kurtz walks out, hands in pockets, onto the expanse of a broad, black stretch of plastic laid in what would otherwise be just a dusty, hilly field of dirt and clay.
The liner below his feet is one of the most important parts of the landfill he is standing in — it is actually made up of four separate liners, each contributing to make the whole virtually impenetrable for 500 years. Buried under the first liner is another liner.
But Kurtz is still skeptical. Frustrated by an argument he just had with one of the landfill officials, he examines the liner firsthand. He finds a seam running lengthwise down the center of the plane where two sections have been welded together, bends over at the waist and tugs at the excess plastic. He can lift it a couple inches off the ground, but there's no way to break it.
That's a good start, because the liner will be the first defense between toxic chemicals and the drinking water supply of East Central Illinois. It's this dusty, hilly, dirty field just south of the town of Clinton that is at the center of a controversy that could be an environmental issue for centuries to come.
Landfill proposes accepting PCBs
Trucks displaying the circular, brown and orange Area Disposal Service logo run up and down U.S. 51 all day. They carry municipal waste, mostly — pizza boxes, milk jugs, reams of paper and the other refuse that people never think about again after they curb it on garbage day.
Occasionally, they'll pass beaming red signs in residents' front yards: "No Toxic Chemical Waste Landfill." Garbage containing polychlorinated biphenyl waste, harmful substances which the EPA banned production of more than 30 years ago, could soon fill some of those trucks.
There are 38.6 million cubic yards of these chemicals contaminating the Great Lakes region alone, says Chris Coulter, the vice president of Area Disposal Service. Among 10 existing chemical waste units in the United States, there is enough space to bury 16.3 million cubic yards, and if the EPA grants the 11th permit to Clinton Landfill, 2.5 million cubic yards will be added to that capacity.
"There's a huge environmental need to get these cleaned up," Coulter says. "Particularly in the Great Lakes."
But the broad, black liners and compacted clay separate the millions of cubic yards of capacity for toxic waste from the millions of gallons of drinking water on which 750,000 people depend every day.
And a number of DeWitt County residents and East Central Illinois government officials believe the science is not there to guarantee the safety of the water supply.
Geologist's analysis cites problems
The administrative record the EPA has compiled since Clinton Landfill applied for a chemical waste permit under the Toxic Substances Control Act is heavy — it contains thousands of pages of documentation about the land, its geology and the anatomy of what is underneath the ground, including the Mahomet Aquifer. It was written over the years by dozens of geologists, researchers and engineers, and it is the document that landfill officials are relying on to get approval from the federal agency.
But local government officials in East Central Illinois are relying heavily on the analysis of one man to block the permit.
George Roadcap, a hydrogeologist with the Illinois State Water Survey, said there are problems with the chemical waste unit at the landfill, and the risk that toxic chemicals will leach into the water supply is much higher than landfill officials and EPA geologists purport.
"It's just the way U.S. EPA makes these statements. It's like they're going out of their way to prove the applicant's case," Roadcap said. "They're acting more like an advocate rather than an arbiter."
Roadcap primarily takes issue with the EPA's definition of the "historic high water table," which the agency places more than 150 feet below the surface of the ground. Under the EPA rationale, the landfill would be in compliance with a portion of the Toxic Substances Control Act, which requires the bottom of the landfill to be more than 50 feet above the historic high water table.
"It's like they searched through and said, 'Well, what definition can we use to make this work?'" Roadcap said.
Roadcap uses what he believes to be a more conventional definition of the historic high water table, and his rationale would place the high level of the water within 42 of the bottom of the landfill. The difference would put the landfill in violation of federal law.
Roadcap also takes issue with the EPA and landfill's assertion that a thick layer of naturally-occurring, "waterproof" clay protects the Mahomet Aquifer from infiltrating chemicals. He said sandy breaks permeate that clay throughout central Illinois, and landfill officials found one on their own property.
"If that clay is waterproof, then there shouldn't be any water in the Mahomet" Aquifer, Roadcap said. "We should have pumped it all out by now."
Landfill officials say the break in the clay is an aberration, and the terms of the EPA permit would require them to excavate it and refill it with compacted clay. A landfill engineer said workers would do the same for any weak spots in the clay they find as they develop the landfill.
Coulter said the company chose the Clinton location because of the natural protection between the waste and the aquifer — although that's another scientific distinction that Roadcap would dispute.
And, Coulter said, the landfill has proven that even without any of the liners, the first layer of compacted clay would still be adequate protection between the toxicity of the waste and the quality of the drinking water below it.
If the chemical still manages to breach those barriers, landfill officials say, dozens of monitoring wells they have placed strategically would detect the contamination thousands of years before it ever reaches the aquifer.
But the biggest concern is what will happen after the landfill closes. A perpetual care fund ensures there will be money available to maintain and monitor the landfill forever, Coulter said.
"I do believe that I'm doing the best thing for my children and grandchildren," Coulter said.
But Roadcap feels it is inevitable that, decades or centuries from now, the waste "cell" will fill up with water and begin to leak after the sump pumps are turned off.
Local governments stay neutral
The landfill already has a permit to accept PCBs in smaller quantities, but the EPA permit would allow it to bury the chemical waste in higher concentrations. By means of an Illinois EPA permit, the landfill already accepts manufactured gas plant waste, too, from sites in Quincy and Mattoon (manufactured gas plant waste is being excavated from a site in Champaign at Fifth and Hill streets, but that material is stored at a landfill in Danville).
A group of residents has organized itself into a political group called WATCH ("We're Against Toxic Chemicals") to fight the permit at both the local and federal levels, and managed to get two local ballot measures opposing the storage of PCB waste approved by voters.
But even though a majority of DeWitt County residents oppose the permit and other government agencies are trying to block the chemical waste, the DeWitt County Board has not joined the effort. Nor does it oppose the effort.
Under the terms of a resolution with the landfill, which the board approved, its members must take a position of political neutrality during the permitting process.
The two entities have a significant financial relationship — last year, the county received $908,845.52 in fees from the landfill under the terms of a local host agreement, according to the county treasurer. DeWitt County's total operating budget is just over $6.1 million, making the landfill payments responsible for about 15 percent of the county's operating expenses.
If the landfill starts accepting PCB waste, the county would receive another $50,000 annually, an agreement that WATCH alleges was negotiated in private and in violation of the state's Open Meetings Act. The attorney general's office is investigating other claims of OMA violations against the county board.
The WATCH group also alleges that landfill officials misled the public during a hearing nearly 10 years ago when they were looking to open a municipal waste landfill — at the time, they say a representative of the landfill claimed the business would never seek to store hazardous waste.
Coulter said he has always been up front about the landfill's intentions, but acknowledges that a landfill official who has since left the company may have made "conflicting statements."
The fees the landfill pays to the county are not required outside of the host agreement, which itself is voluntary, Coulter said. It's a matter of "good neighborly relations."
And Coulter dismisses the idea that money has anything to do with the politics — he points to a 3-2 decision of the Clinton City Council to maintain a neutral stance, even though the city has no financial relationship with the landfill.
Area governments get involved
Government officials outside of DeWitt County have not hesitated to get involved. Members of larger municipalities across East Central Illinois recently have been organizing a collective effort against the issuance of the permit.
Champaign City Manager Steve Carter said his legal department is looking at the issue.
"What we're trying to do is lay out, both short-term and long-term, some options we can be considering so that we can have a discussion with other interested parties," Carter said.
The short-term issues are what legal action can be taken if the EPA grants the permit. The federal agency has already issued a draft approval, the public comment period has closed, and Coulter said he is confident the landfill will be granted permission to store the PCB waste. The landfill has already invested more than $1 million in the cell where the waste will be stored.
There is an appeals process the city could pursue if the permit were granted, which could happen this fall. That costs money, and part of the effort depends on which groups are capable of contributing the funds.
"Most of these options that we're looking at probably take specialized expertise" like that of attorneys and engineers, Carter said.
The long-term solution might be to get the Mahomet Aquifer designated by the EPA as a "sole-source" aquifer, which would make its protection more stringent, Carter said. By that point, the Clinton Landfill would have already established its permission to accept PCB waste, but the designation could block future efforts to site chemical waste units above the water source.
Carter said he was impressed with the operation and design of the landfill upon touring it, but it's impossible to be perfect.
Kurtz could not break the black plastic liners that will act as the cradle for the toxic waste with his own hands, but Carter and others suggest something else could.
Carter said he is left asking, "If the permit were granted and if something might happen, would they be able to catch it before the aquifer is damaged?"