Agencies join to seek federal protection for aquifer
UPDATED 10:20 p.m. Monday
CHAMPAIGN — As a Clinton landfill looks to bury chemical waste over the Mahomet Aquifer, area agencies are chipping in on an application to add another layer of federal protection to the source of drinking water for 750,000 central Illinois residents.
City officials are looking for a "sole-source aquifer" designation, which would make the Mahomet Aquifer the only one in the state with such a label and one of only a dozen in the nation.
If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approves the application, it would add another layer of review to some federally funded projects that may affect the aquifer: potentially, major highway improvement projects, public water supply improvements, wastewater treatment facilities, projects that involve animal wastes, and some rural housing construction projects, according to the EPA website.
But city officials say it is an important step to protect an invaluable water source, particularly in light of Clinton Landfill's hope to begin burying potentially harmful polychlorinated biphenyls above the natural underground reservoir that runs from the Indiana border to the Illinois River.
"We believe that it is critically important for us to stand up and preserve the aquifer," said Champaign Mayor Don Gerard.
Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing said her city is "right there with Champaign," and is one of several governments splitting the cost of the application process.
"This is a critical issue, and we can't afford to have our drinking water compromised," Prussing said.
The cities of Champaign and Urbana, the village of Savoy, the town of Normal and the University of Illinois are all chipping in to pay for the estimated $55,000 cost of the sole-source application. The EPA review process will take months, said Al Wehrmann, a groundwater hydrologist from Layne Hydro, a consulting firm the agencies have hired.
The Mahomet Aquifer will need to meet a number of criteria before it is eligible for sole-source designation. One of the biggest is that it needs to provide at least 50 percent of the drinking water for a region.
"Our investigation clearly shows that it does that," Wehrmann said.
In fact, officials will put that number at 100 percent in the application.
"Really, for all intents and purposes, the Mahomet Aquifer is it," Wehrmann said. "If we were to lose it as a water supply, the region would be in definite trouble."
Meanwhile, Clinton Landfill officials are still awaiting word from the U.S. EPA on a pending permit that would allow the company to bury PCBs at their landfill in DeWitt County.
C-U and other elected officials, including Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, have lobbied in opposition to that PCB application.
The fear is that contamination from the chemical waste could escape from the landfill and into the groundwater, eventually filtering down to the aquifer. Landfill officials have repeatedly said that the storage unit meets or exceeds all federal guidelines for landfills, and the water would be safe for, at a minimum, hundreds of years.
Even if the EPA were to grant the sole-source designation, the federal PCB permit for Clinton Landfill would not be affected. But the state of Illinois has more stringent rules for sole-source aquifers, Wehrmann said, and the landfill could potentially lose its state permit that entitles it to store the chemical waste.
Gerard anticipates that interest groups may try to "muddy the waters" with big spending in opposition to the sole-source application.
According to the EPA website, the agency may deny federal funding for a project if it poses a risk of contamination to a sole-source aquifer and the project organizer refuses to remove the risks. The action would only block the funding — a project's organizer could still move forward if it chooses.
City officials say the new rules would not put federal farm subsidies or crop insurance at risk.
Gerard said there might challenges to the application in a political environment where more government is perceived as a bad thing.
"This is an instance where I think government is crucial," Gerard said. "We need to have this type of regulation. It's our drinking water."
Frequently asked questions
If the Mahomet Aquifer were to be designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a "sole-source aquifer," it would add another layer of protection for central Illinois' drinking water, and it would also add another layer of review before some projects may receive federal funding. Here are some of the frequently asked questions directly from the U.S. EPA website:
Q: What happens after an aquifer is designated?
A: According to the Safe Drinking Water Act, projects that are to receive federal financial assistance and which have the potential to contaminate the aquifer "so as to create a significant hazard to public health" are subject to EPA review and approval. Federal funding could include things like contracts, grants and loan guarantees.
Q: What are some examples of projects that EPA typically reviews?
A: EPA has reviewed major highway improvement projects; new transit centers and park-and-ride lots; public water supply improvements, wastewater treatment facilities, and projects that involve animal wastes; and housing subdivisions and other building construction projects that are not served by public water, sewer, and storm water drainage systems.
Q: Does EPA review federally assisted home mortgage loans, such as those offered through the VA or FHA?
A: EPA generally would not get involved if a private citizen were to seek such a loan to build a single-family dwelling. However, EPA could get involved in reviewing a cluster of homes that were federally-assisted if they would collectively pose a threat to ground water quality.
Q: To what extent does EPA review agricultural projects?
A: EPA's role regarding agriculture and the SSA Program has traditionally been to coordinate with the USDA funding agency to ensure that existing federal, state, and local ground water quality measures are being followed. For example, livestock operations seeking federal loans for herd expansions could be reviewed to ensure that adequate animal waste management facilities are first in place to handle the additional waste and that any applicable permits or state guidelines are followed.
Q: Under what circumstances would EPA ask for additional conditions before approving federal funding?
A: EPA would ask for changes to a project only when it would pose a threat to public health by contaminating an aquifer to the point where a safe drinking water standard could be exceeded.
Q: Has EPA ever denied federal funding to a project?
A: Yes, there have been cases where federal funding has been denied when an applicant has been either unwilling or unable to modify a project to protect an aquifer. Such denials are rare, however.
Q: If EPA refuses to approve federal funding, is that decision final and will the project just be canceled?
A: Not necessarily. The project proponent can, if financially able, decide to go it alone without the federal funds.
SOURCE: U.S. EPA website — epa.gov