Area lawmakers determined to protect aquifer
CLINTON — Area politicians are saying they continue to ramp up efforts to protect the Mahomet Aquifer, and they are urging the public to start getting involved, too.
The Mahomet Aquifer Protection Alliance — the newest of several organizations in the effort — convened a meeting Saturday in Clinton. The small DeWitt County community has come to be ground zero in legal and political battles over the aquifer, the source of drinking water for about 750,000 in 15 counties across central Illinois.
State and local politicians said they are doing their best to raise awareness of threats to the aquifer and to increase state oversight of Clinton Landfill, which is operating a chemical waste unit directly above the drinking water source.
The owners of the landfill have been seeking U.S. EPA approval to accept polychlorinated biphenyls, harmful chemicals which were banned by the federal government in the 1970s but continue to pollute the Great Lakes and rivers.
Clinton Landfill officials say the unit they built to bury the special waste is impenetrable and will safely hold those chemicals for hundreds of years. Government officials say they are not so sure.
While they wait for word from the EPA on PCBs, politicians say they are also pursuing alternative means in efforts to protect the aquifer. State Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, said he and state Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, have been working to increase on-site inspections of the landfill and to install a "working group" to increase oversight of the Illinois EPA.
"This is hopefully just the beginning in an effort to increase accountability in a critical Illinois agency," Frerichs said.
Years ago, the Illinois EPA approved a permit to allow Clinton Landfill to accept special kinds of waste at its facility. The basis for that permit is now in dispute and the source of a complaint before the Illinois Pollution Control Board.
In September, the Illinois Pollution Control Board dismissed the government agencies' complaint about the basis for the Illinois EPA permit. They argued that the permit was issued without a required review by the DeWitt County Board.
The pollution control board found that it is not the landfill's responsibility to seek that approval — rather, it is the Illinois EPA's responsibility to ensure that they did, according to the board's opinion. Therefore, regardless of whether that review was ever completed, the complaint against Clinton Landfill was dismissed because the Illinois EPA had already issued the permit.
Champaign Assistant City Attorney Joe Hooker said "the decision doesn't make any sense," and officials have filed a motion to reconsider.
"We think they've misstated some of the facts in our complaint," Hooker said. "We've pointed those out in our motion. We also think that they've completely misinterpreted some of the case law that they relied on in their opinion. So we're hopeful they'll change their mind."
If the board does not change its mind, Hooker said, officials plan to appeal the case to a higher court.
Rose said the Illinois EPA "was not on its game" in overseeing its own responsibilities with respect to the landfill. He said the Illinois EPA had an "unpleasant" budget hearing with legislators this year, when they called to attention the agency's miscues.
Conditions at the state agency are already starting to improve, Rose said.
"The state EPA has brought its top-level decision-making people to the working group," Rose said. "That's a big improvement from where we were several years ago."
While the battle over the landfill operations promises to continue for a long time, officials expect more activity during the next year or so. The pollution control board hearing will be one, and the U.S. EPA is reviewing a "sole-source aquifer" application a group of local governments submitted in December of last year.
Sole-source status for the Mahomet Aquifer would add another layer of review to projects that may affect the aquifer when federal money is involved. Officials are expecting the EPA to convene a public hearing on the application sometime during the next few months.
Among others, mayors from Champaign, Urbana, Bloomington and Normal also attended Saturday's meeting, along with county board chairpersons from Champaign and DeWitt counties. Former Champaign City Manager Steve Carter, who retired earlier this year, is one of the people heading up the effort.
They restated a litany of problems they have been looking at for years — for one, that the DeWitt County Board had the say-so in siting a landfill over a drinking water source serving 15 counties.
"State law empowers local communities to decide whether they're going to take" the waste, Rose said. "The problem here is that the DeWitt County Board had the say for every community over the aquifer."
Officials at Saturday's meeting also do not dispute that PCBs are plaguing the Great Lakes region and need to be cleaned up. But the waste, they say, needs to go somewhere else — not over the aquifer in Clinton.
"To me, it's a no-brainer. To many of you, it just doesn't make sense," said Champaign County Board Chairman Al Kurtz. "Let's get together with this company and tell them we're willing to work with them to find another location that won't jeopardize our future legacy, our children and our grandchildren."
If the U.S. EPA approves the permit to allow Clinton Landfill to begin accepting PCB waste, that would make it only the second landfill in the six-state region capable of burying the chemicals. The other is outside Detroit.
Champaign Mayor Don Gerard said keeping the chemicals out of the Mahomet Aquifer region is his biggest concern.
"We'll take this as far as it needs to go," Gerard said.