Election likely shifted DeWitt County Board's aquifer stance

CLINTON — If Champaign and other local officials are relying on the DeWitt County Board to block a proposal by the Clinton Landfill to store hazardous waste above the Mahomet Aquifer, they might be in luck.

Those tracking the issue say there was a "significant" shift on the board in the November election, and public awareness of the landfill proposal has continued to grow ever since the board first granted the business a permit to store municipal waste in 2002.

"I think we're going to see a major change in the direction of DeWitt County," said David Holt, publisher of the DeWitt County Constitution and one of the founders of a watchdog group that has been fighting the landfill's proposal.

The Clinton Landfill's request to store polychlorinated biphenyls at its facility just south of Clinton has grown into a years-long battle over protecting central Illinois' water. The landfill is located directly over the Mahomet Aquifer, a natural underground reservoir that provides drinking water for more than 700,000 residents in the region.

Throughout the battle, Clinton Landfill officials have insisted that they built a storage facility that meets or exceeds all federal regulations and will protect against leakage for hundreds of years.

The 2002 DeWitt County Board approval for the landfill is now the subject of a complaint that the city of Champaign and a coalition of other government agencies filed in front of the Illinois Pollution Control Board.

The Illinois attorney general has also signed on to the protest.

Clinton Landfill officials built the facility to store PCBs — a carcinogenic chemical that was commonly used in electric transformers — but no waste has been buried yet. The landfill is awaiting federal approval from the Environmental Protection Agency, which has delayed its decision as talks continue.

The complaint before the Illinois Pollution Control Board alleges that the landfill and the state of Illinois erred when the state granted a permit modification that would allow the landfill to store PCBs at its facility.

Champaign city officials say that the modification would have required another round of approval from the DeWitt County Board, which in 2002 signed off only on a proposal to bury municipal waste — not hazardous PCBs.

The Illinois Pollution Control Board will spend the next few months reviewing the complaint. If it agrees with the protesters and Clinton Landfill officials continue to pursue the plan the store PCBs, the landfill would need to seek another favorable vote from the DeWitt County Board.

But that favorable sentiment toward the landfill might not be there. The political makeup of the county board has shifted over the years, said Chairwoman Sherrie Brown, and eight of its 12 members were elected on the platform that they would not give that approval.

"We object to the PCBs," Brown said. "That was part of our election materials and our beliefs."

The seven Republicans and one Democrat opposing the landfill's proposal call themselves the "Reform Coalition," and they sprung out of public opposition to the landfill that has grown during the past five years or so, Holt said.

In the November election, they finally achieved a solid majority. Holt says he thinks there are at least eight and as many as 10 votes in opposition to the PCB proposal among the 12-member board.

"The people were always voting since 2008 for Reform candidates," Holt said. "It's just the people weren't always running."

As public awareness has grown over the years, Brown said, DeWitt County residents overwhelmingly opposed the landfill's plan in nonbinding referendums.

Board member Ron Savage said that would be the basis for his vote against the PCB proposal if it came back for another local siting review.

"I'm representing the voters, and I'm representing their wishes," Savage said.

Brown said that past versions of the DeWitt County Board have felt like their hands were tied under an agreement with Clinton Landfill.

"The public spoke adamantly," Brown said. "They did not want the PCBs. The stance that some of the previous board members took was that they couldn't oppose or say they were in favor of it. They just took a neutral stance."

Under the terms of a resolution with the landfill, which the board approved in 2008, its members must take a position of political neutrality during the permitting process.

Brown said she worries that resolution might open the county up to a lawsuit from the landfill if it were to openly object to its proposal, but she said it will not stop her.

No matter what happens, she does not think the issue will be resolved without a lawsuit.

"I think there's a number of us believe that it will make no difference whether we object it or are in favor of it," Brown said. "The potential for lawsuit is there."

Board member Mark Gardner said he has heard landfill officials' stance that it is virtually impossible that PCBs would leak from the storage facility for hundreds of years.

He said he does not think it is an issue that would affect him or even his grandchildren, but it could be harmful some day.

"PCBs last forever," Gardner said. "And at some point in the future, there is a very good chance that there will be leakage and it will find its way into the water supply. And that cannot be reversed."

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