Standing-room only at EPA hearing on aquifer
CHAMPAIGN — A standing-room-only crowd gathered at the Hilton Garden Inn on Tuesday night to tell U.S. EPA officials that they want more federal protection for the Mahomet Aquifer.
Government and elected officials, representatives of interest groups and residents from across central Illinois attended the EPA public hearing on the proposed "sole-source aquifer" designation for the underground drinking water source.
The U.S. EPA has already issued preliminary approval for that additional protection after a coalition of central Illinois government agencies petitioned in 2012 to have the Mahomet Aquifer designated a "sole-source aquifer." The label would add a layer of federal review when any federally-funded project may affect the underground water flow which acts as the source of drinking water for about 750,000 residents across the region.
It's been an ongoing effort, often centered around the request by a DeWitt County landfill to store polychlorinated biphenyl waste at a site above the aquifer. It was moving along nearly unchecked until several years ago when government officials stepped in.
George Wissmiller, a DeWitt County Board member who has been involved since very early in the effort, said, until locals starting pushing for more protection, the state and federal governments had dropped the ball. Protection needs to be generated locally, he said during the hearing.
"The local governments picked it up and moved forward with it," Wissmiller said.
Although the federal "sole-source aquifer" designation would not necessarily stop Clinton Landfill in DeWitt County from accepting PCB waste — it is awaiting a federal permit from the EPA — Tuesday night's hearing was yet another step in the process.
EPA spokesman Bill Spaulding said that, in 10 years, no project in the EPA's Midwest region has been denied federal funding for threatening a sole-source aquifer, "although many design changes have been made to improve those projects." Even if a project above a protected aquifer were denied federal funding, that would not bar it from moving forward with alternative funding.
The EPA will review the public hearing comments before issuing its final decision on the designation. The public comment period will be open until June 12, and another hearing is being held tonight in Morton. Anyone may still submit written comments to the EPA.
Standing room only for EPA Mahomet Aquifer public hearing right now at Hilton Garden Inn. pic.twitter.com/IOPAq1X22t
— Patrick Wade (@patrick_wade) May 13, 2014
Champaign Mayor Don Gerard received a brief round of applause during the first part of the meeting when he asked anyone representing Area Disposal Service to stand and be recognized in front of the large crowd. Area Disposal owns Clinton Landfill in DeWitt County.
The landfill's plans were a driving force behind residents and government officials taking up the effort to protect the aquifer, which ultimately led to Tuesday night's hearing.
Gerard asked several times — no one stood, but a few people seated pointed toward where one of those representatives was believed to be sitting.
During the hearing, Gerard said government officials believe the best way to protect the aquifer is "through education and awareness."
"This is phenomenal, and we're very pleased to see so many people show up," Gerard said.
He said a sole-source designation would be a "powerful message to send." Both he and Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing said they've heard overwhelming support for the designation.
"I don't know of anybody in Urbana that doesn't want the aquifer to be a sole-source aquifer and who supports having PCBs," Prussing said.