SPRINGFIELD — Two local state senators said Thursday that they have a commitment from the state Environmental Protection Agency that it will step up its oversight of the Clinton Landfill.
The owners of the landfill, located outside of Clinton in DeWitt County, already are taking in some hazardous wastes at the site and have asked the U.S. EPA for permission to accept wastes containing PCBs, a suspected human carcinogen.
But local governments and citizens' groups oppose the designation because the landfill is located above the Mahomet Aquifer, the source of drinking water for about 750,000 people in 88 central Illinois communities, including Champaign and Urbana.
Sens. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, and Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, announced the increased oversight.
"This all came out of that hearing we had in Monticello (last August), this whole notion that the state EPA does not independently analyze any of the samples brought to it by any landfill. You end up in a situation where the fox is guarding the henhouse," Rose said. "And particularly in the case of PDC (Peoria Disposal Co., owner of the landfill), it owns its own in-house testing company.
"So the landfill takes the collection, sends it to itself, says everything is fine and then sends it to the EPA saying, 'No problems here. Everything is fine.'"
Rose said that "everything may be fine. But it doesn't look right when you are testing yourself."
He said he "lit into" the agency during an appropriations hearing with the EPA's new director, Lisa Bonnett, in Springfield two weeks ago.
"Afterwards I asked if she would sit down and talk with me and Mike about this. We met with her Tuesday," he said. "Our meeting I thought went very well. She came into the meeting and actually agreed to it before Mike and I said it."
Under the agreement, according to Rose, Bonnett said the agency would increase its oversight of the landfill, including independent testing of groundwater supplies from the landfill's monitoring wells, more frequent on-site inspections at the landfill and the assignment of senior EPA staff to a permanent working group with local advocacy groups.
Bonnett was unavailable for comment but EPA spokesman Andrew Mason confirmed the meeting "was quite productive. The agency did agree to independently review the sample results, increase inspections from once every quarter to once every other month, and to work with the community."
He said the agency "is committed to working with legislators and communities to ensure that concerns about water contamination are addressed."
Frerichs said he hoped the EPA's willingness to increase its oversight of the landfill "is the result of bipartisan legislative pressure."
"I've been working with Senator Rose and Representative (Naomi) Jakobsson on a variety of solutions and answers for some time," he said. "And I do not think we are done.
"I don't think the people who get their drinking water from the Mahomet Aquifer will be completely happy with this, but hopefully it's a move in the right direction."
Rose said he thought it was "essentially indefensible, prior to this director, how things worked out there. But she's a new director and she seems willing to work with us and I'm encouraged by that."
Meanwhile, efforts aimed at blocking the disposal of PCBs — polychlorinated biphenyls — at the site continue on two fronts. A consortium of 17 cities, villages and counties, plus Attorney General Lisa Madigan, is asking the Illinois Pollution Control Board to send a proposal for a chemical waste unit at the landfill back to the DeWitt County Board for review. And the federal EPA has stalled its review of an application for the landfill to accept PCBs.
"Since Naomi, Mike and I first shone light on this, you now have the federal government apparently backing off an imminent decision on this, and now you have the consortium filing with (the pollution control board,)" Rose said. "You have a lot of trains moving down the track to stop the PCB component."
A third effort — legislation to ban the disposal of PCBs in a landfill less than 500 feet above a sole-source aquifer — was defeated in an Illinois House committee last month.
George Wissmiller, a member of the DeWitt County Board and a longtime opponent of the landfill, said he was skeptical that the agreement would mean much.
"I'm torn," he said. "If I thought it was legitimate, it would be a good thing. But I think it's just something to make the people feel that something is being done about it when in fact nothing is being done about it. It is still quite likely that they're going to dump PCBs on top of the aquifer."
He said he had little faith in the Illinois EPA.
"The idea they're being straight with us, I got past that about five years ago," Wissmiller said.
The only way to stop the PCBs, he said, is with public pressure.
"It's going to take letters. It's going to take phone calls. It's going to take political pressure. It's going to take election pressure and donation pressure, but I think it can be stopped," he said.
Angela Adams, the city of Champaign's recycling coordinator and environmental projects leader, was more positive.
"I think this is a good initial step that the EPA is going to take more initiative," she said. "Chapin (Rose) has really put a lot of pressure on them, that they really need to do the stuff they're promising to do."
The requirement that an EPA working group regularly meet with local advocates will ensure accountability, she said.
"We'll really be keeping an eye on them. It's not just them functioning as an agency," said Adams, who Rose said likely will be a member of the local group. "I'm going to go there ask them, 'OK, what did you do last month?'"