EPA to remove soil from homes south of Tilton

TILTON — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has decided to remove contaminated soil around 29 homes south of Tilton that have tested positive for high levels of lead and arsenic that likely drifted by wind and rain from a nearby zinc smelter site.

The federal agency plans to dig and remove up to 2 feet of soil in the yards of the residential properties, haul it off-site and bring in clean soil to backfill the yards, according to a notice from the U.S. EPA to residents who live near the former zinc smelter operation.

Becky Anderson and her husband live on South 1st Street, which is closest to the 100-acre Superfund site. Anderson said their property is only about 50 feet from the big fence the EPA put up several years ago to keep people out of the contaminated area.

"It's right out our back yard," said Anderson, who has tried to keep up with the EPA's ongoing efforts at the site. "It's that little thing that's always in the back of your head, wondering, 'What's going on?' "

But Thursday, Anderson said she was not yet aware of the cleanup plan for 29 properties in her neighborhood and did not know if her property is one slated for removal. She said soil samples were taken at her house about a year ago, but she hadn't heard anything since then.

The 100-acre Hegeler Zinc Superfund site is in an unincorporated area south of Tilton, and 3 miles south of Danville. It was a zinc-smelting operation until 1954, producing large slag piles that contain hazardous metals, including lead, arsenic and zinc. In 2005, the site was designated one of the nation's most hazardous waste sites eligible for cleanup under the U.S. EPA's Superfund program. The site includes areas of soil, surface water, sediment and groundwater contamination.

Since 2005, the agency has been doing multiple rounds of testing on-site and off-site, including more than 100 residences in a neighborhood directly east of the Superfund area. It's bordered by North 1st Street and South 1st Street on the west and South 3rd Street to the east.

According to the agency, soil samples from 27 properties in that neighborhood show high levels of lead and four show high levels of arsenic. Two have high levels of both lead and arsenic, and 27 more properties still need to be tested.

According to the EPA, the soil around these residences are downwind from the former smelter site and became contaminated with particles carried by wind and rain from the slag piles and emissions from the former smelter stacks.

The greatest risk to the residents in the neighborhood, according to the EPA, is if they come into contact with the contaminated soil in their yards.

"People could be exposed by accidentally getting contaminated soil in their mouths, breathing in contaminated dust particles, or getting contaminated soil on their skin — although the greatest risk of exposure comes from mouth ingestion of the soil, the risk from simply touching the soil is low, and lower still from breathing dust particles outdoors," the EPA notice states.

The agency is hosting an open house later this month to discuss with the public the proposed residential-area cleanup followed by a formal public meeting to gather comments on the plan. The agency, along with Illinois EPA representatives, may change the cleanup plan based on public comments.

The only difference between the two cleanup options is where to dispose of the contaminated soil.

In the option the EPA is recommending, the soil would be hauled by truck to the former zinc smelter site and stockpiled there to be handled as part of future cleanup efforts. The stockpile would be covered with vegetation and watered for growth and stabilization and inspected and maintained to control soil erosion and sediment runoff until the entire smelter site is cleaned up.

The removal of soil, trucking and backfilling of the yards would take about three months, require 675 truck loads and cost an estimated $4.3 million, according to the EPA.

The other option, which is not being recommended, calls for trucking the contaminated soil to an approved landfill. That option would also take three months, would require an estimated 844 truckloads and cost $5.3 million.

Anderson said she's refrained from planting a garden in the nine years she's lived there, even though she was told that plants yielding produce above ground would be OK. She said for that reason and others, she welcomes the proposed cleanup, even if their property is one slated for soil removal.

"I don't have a problem with that. If it's a health issue, it needs to be gone," said Anderson, who added that she believes there's a high rate of cancer in their small neighborhood and has often wondered if there's a correlation.

According to the EPA, lead and arsenic are highly toxic and can enter the body by inhaling air, drinking water or swallowing food or dirt that contains either, and both are particularly dangerous to pregnant women.

Lead can cause behavioral problems, learning disabilities, seizures and a variety of other health issues, including death. Children are more at risk, because they are more likely to swallow dirt that contains lead and more sensitive to its effects. And arsenic can cause skin problems, a decrease in the production of red and white blood cells, abnormal heart rhythm and can increase the risk of skin cancer and cancer in the liver, bladder and lungs.

The EPA also did an ecological risk assessment and determined that the risk to the local ecology is low, so no actions will be taken to protect the environment.

EPA open house

What: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency open house, public meeting.

When: 4-6 p.m. July 24, followed by public meeting at 6:30 p.m.

Where: Room 127, David S. Palmer Arena, 100 W. Main St., Danville.

Why: To inform public about Hegeler Zinc residential-area cleanup.

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