CLINTON — Clinton Landfill officials and concerned citizens positioned themselves and their poster board displays on opposite sides of a library conference room on Tuesday — between them, Illinois EPA officials provided a neutral buffer between their contradicting viewpoints.
It was yet another scene in an ongoing battle between the landfill, which is seeking federal approval to bury potentially harmful chemicals, and citizens who want to maintain the purity of the Mahomet Aquifer from which hundreds of thousands of central Illinois residents draw their drinking water.
An attorney for the landfill on Tuesday maintained that the proposed chemical waste storage unit poses no risk to the underground drinking water. His comments came two weeks after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued another delay in the permitting process that would give the landfill the green light.
Officials had been expecting a decision by now, but the most recent delay came after the EPA looked at 450 public comments during a year-long review.
"Based on this review, EPA has decided that further evaluation of site hydrogeology will be needed before making a final decision on Clinton Landfill Inc.'s application to dispose of PCB-contaminated material at this site," the agency said in a March 22 press release.
Activists worry that the polychlorinated biphenyl materials, which the EPA describes as known carcinogens that are harmful to human health, could leak into the Mahomet Aquifer, a massive natural reservoir deep underground. Landfill officials have reiterated that the proposed site is engineered to protect the water long into the future.
Tuesday's session at the public library in Clinton was not related to that federal process, but rather part of a state renewal of a permit it granted to the landfill five years ago. It was not an ordinary step, however, and initiated only after the landfill missed a required deadline for public notification.
"There was a glitch and the local officials did not get notified," said Stan Black, community response analyst for the Illinois EPA.
The EPA requires landfill officials to send letters or emails to at least five local public officials whenever a permit is up for renewal. The notices eventually got out, but not until after a November deadline.
The Illinois EPA scheduled Tuesday's meeting to make sure residents' questions were answered.
"I've gotten many hundreds of emails and calls," Black said.
Brian Meginnes, an attorney for the landfill, attributed the mistake to a "clerical error." He said the landfill typically has 10 to 15 permits up for review at any given time, and "we're continually filing" notices.
But it was enough to raise the ire of activists trying to stop the federal permit that would allow the landfill to bury PCBs.
"It's something after something" with the landfill, said George Wissmiller, a founding member of a citizen group that has been leading the effort against the landfill.
Wissmiller thinks public notification of the landfill's intentions has been an ongoing problem. Too many of the dealings have been made outside of the public view, he said, and EPA requirements are too lax on requirements for distributing information.
"If they're threatening your water supply, they (should) have to deal directly with you," Wissmiller said.
Meginnes said the group is "looking kind of in the wrong place." The proposed landfill site passes stringent, modern government rules, he said. It's the older landfills across central Illinois that closed before modern regulations, he suggested, that pose a risk to the environment.
Wissmiller said the federal delay and the recent formation of a consortium of central Illinois municipalities monitoring the landfill's interaction with the Mahomet Aquifer are encouraging. The Clinton group is now trying to establish another version of itself in Champaign-Urbana.
"The public knows about it," Wissmiller said. "And that's really tough for them (landfill officials) to deal with."