Tom Kacich: Why risk polluting our aquifer?

If you like the idea of West Virginia's "Chemical Valley" being centered along the Elk River — where about 300,000 people get their drinking water — how about the notion of dumping hazardous chemicals over an aquifer that provides drinking water for 750,000 people in central Illinois?

That's what the owners of a landfill in Clinton want to do, directly over the Mahomet Aquifer, a geological formation far underground between approximately the Hoopeston area and the Illinois River. The aquifer is a prolific source of drinking water for residents of about 90 communities, including Champaign-Urbana.

The owners of Clinton Landfill Inc. want to be able to accept toxic PCBs at the landfill. Remarkably, the federal EPA still hasn't said no.

The PCBs, ugly remnants of industrial processes particularly in the Chicago area, have to go somewhere, say business groups. It's best to get them out of high-population areas. It's also more fair to keep them in Illinois than export them to Michigan.

At a public hearing about 18 months ago, a hydrologist suggested that computer models showed that PCBs could be stored at the landfill for more than a thousand years without leaching through clay and liners into the aquifer.

"The nature of PCBs is that they absorb to clay," said Daniel Drommerhausen, a hydrologist with Shaw Environmental Inc. "And that's why when I modeled the landfill without ... (plastic) liners and just that 3 feet of compacted clay; after 1,000 years the PCBs had not moved through that compacted liner. And if you can imagine, there is an additional 150 feet of clay below that."

But really, right over a major drinking water source? Why take the risk?

"Sometimes I feel like the dumbest guy in the room with all these scientists around," said Randy Keith, a Piatt County Board member who also is a member of a Mahomet Aquifer Working Group, "but I know how our folks feel. They're scared to death of this thing. I've not had one person come up to me and say, 'Hey, this is a good deal.'"

State Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, who helped establish the Mahomet Aquifer Working Group, noted that the West Virginia chemical spill isn't directly comparable to the Clinton issue.

"But it underscores the importance of the decisions that are about to be made," he said. "It underscores the importance of the effort to stop the Clinton landfill from accepting these dangerous PCBs. It's all the more reason why we've got a working group that for the last seven or eight months has been looking into a lot of issues there.

"At the end of the day in the landfill and whatever it accepts, whether it's PCBs or a piece of paper, it's accepted on top of the drinking water supply for a half a million people or so."

Rose said the working group already has been alerted to the presence of industrial solvents under the existing landfill at Clinton, detected at monitoring wells there.

"I have concerns about some of the things they're already accepting versus the possibility that they will take PCBs," Rose said. "They're taking other wastes there that could permeate the water table far quicker than a PCB would anyway. Our group has gotten into a lot of issues, not just PCBs."

George Roadcap, a hydrogeologist at the Illinois State Water Survey in Champaign, said that recent inspections by the landfill operators found elevated levels of trichloroethylene, a toxic industrial solvent used to degrease metal parts, at the landfill's monitoring wells.

"The landfill has not explained where that came from," Roadcap said. "Then they resampled and didn't find it. That seems a little odd, so maybe it's a question of an analysis problem. If it was in the water one month it just wouldn't disappear.

"Maybe they have a perfectly logical explanation. I don't know. But it does raise some red flags to me."

Roadcap said he's also had "some quality assurance issues" with scientific data provided by the landfill owners.

"I don't know why they're sending bad data to the IEPA. To my mind that puts a cloud over the whole thing," he said.

It reminds me of the griping — too late now — from West Virginia: the virtual lack of regulation over storage tanks (which leaked the chemicals into the Elk River), the sloppy regulation that did exist, federal regulatory exemptions for certain chemicals, the lack of updated environmental regulatory legislation.

Keep that in mind these pre-election days as state and federal candidates mouth their talking points about too much government red tape and regulation. I think they have it backward.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at kacich@news-gazette.com.

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Tags (1):2014 election

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EdRyan wrote on January 19, 2014 at 9:01 am

Sounds like one earthquake away from a disaster.

How many rosy scenarios and glorious projections have you seen blow up in everyone's face?  Happens all to often.

Then there is the issue of tolerable risk here, the risks we know, the risks we don't know, and the risks we don't know we don't know combined with what it would cost if there were a disaster.  Even with a low risk of disaster the expected value of the disaster looks like it would be catastrophic.

The first rule in risk management is to avoid an avoidable risk if possible.  Sounds like a good idea here.