Group wants more cleanup at Fifth-Hill site
CHAMPAIGN — Even though the white tent has come down, a community group is pressing for more environmental cleanup at a toxic site near Fifth and Hill streets.
The Fifth and Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign restated its demands during an organizational meeting on Wednesday night: It says Ameren Illinois did not go far enough when they stopped at its property line in cleaning up contamination from a former manufactured gas plant.
The group brought in a University of Illinois professor whose graduate students studied the site. Charles Werth, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, said site contamination goes well beyond the property lines of a roughly 2 1/2 acre site Ameren Illinois owns just east of the intersection of Fifth and Hill streets.
The debate over site contamination has been ongoing for years. Though Ameren Illinois never owned the manufactured gas plant that operated on the site until 1955, it acquired the property through a series of business deals and is responsible for its cleanup.
The utility recently completed excavating soil from the property to remove contaminants, but neighbors say they still fear carcinogenic chemicals like benzene are in the groundwater and have migrated from the property to the surrounding neighborhood.
Werth said the documentation shows that soil samples taken from around the site prove that the contamination has spread into the surrounding neighborhood — in some cases, the farthest test sites from the property showed contamination levels higher than what is generally considered safe.
Werth said that means there's no definitive answer to how far the contamination has really migrated.
"Based on the documentation I've looked at, I haven't identified where the clean line for the soil contamination is once you move off the property," Werth said.
The most dangerous chemicals in the soil include benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene — or BTEX chemicals — and another group called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs.
When the plant was in operation, those chemicals were used in a process that turned coal into methane gas. A byproduct of that process was coal tar, which could have leaked out of pipes or was mishandled during an era when workers were unaware of the long-term effects. Other chemicals were found in fuels for engines that powered the plant.
Werth said those chemicals can migrate in the groundwater. It's a slow process — maybe only several feet per year — but the manufactured gas plant opened in the 1880s.
"It's had a long time to migrate," Werth said. "We're talking 100 years, so then you can begin to think about long distances that these can travel."
Ameren officials were not immediately available for comment Wednesday night, but they have maintained that the toxic site poses no threat to neighborhood residents. Ameren Illinois cleaned up the site as part of the state's "voluntary site remediation" program, and completed the final phases of that process with soil injections around the perimeter of the property earlier this year.
Serena Hou, a UI doctoral student, said follow-up tests have shown, however, that those BTEX chemicals and naphthalene, a PAH, remain near the surface around the perimeter of the property.
Claudia Lennhoff, the executive director of Champaign County Health Care Consumers, said there is not much use getting frustrated with Ameren Illinois, which has met the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency's standards for site remediation. Instead, she said, residents should turn their focus to the state agency for more cleanup.
"While I get frustrated and mad at Ameren, Ameren's going to do whatever they're allowed to do," Lennhoff said.
Lennhoff said the group wants the off-site contamination and the suspected groundwater contamination cleaned up, and it wants a pipe believed to run from the Fifth and Hill site to the Boneyard Creek removed. It also wants to make sure that manufactured gas plant waste remains out of a landfill in Clinton sitting above the Mahomet Aquifer, the source of drinking water for more than 700,000 people in 15 central Illinois counties.
The way to do that, she said, is to put pressure on regulatory agencies.
"We need to focus on the government agencies that allow or don't allow certain things to happen," Lennhoff said.