Residents turn to federal EPA for help in Champaign neighborhood
CHAMPAIGN — Fed up with the state agency, Champaign residents are now looking to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address their concerns about toxic waste in their neighborhood.
They're also hoping that the chemicals they suspect remain under their homes don't end up above the Mahomet Aquifer.
Their comments on Thursday came just days before an informational "Mahomet Aquifer summit" scheduled from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the Champaign Public Library. There, city officials and others plan to tell attendees about the threat they think a chemical waste landfill in Clinton poses to all of central Illinois' drinking water.
Residents of the neighborhood around an old manufactured gas plant near the intersection of Fifth and Hill say they still want chemicals taken out of their neighborhood and to stay out of their drinking water. They had been working with the Illinois EPA for years, but say they feel they've hit a brick wall.
Jerry Lewis, who lives just more than a block from that site, said that after years of communicating with the state EPA and Gov. Pat Quinn's office, the agency has been "derelict" in its duties and has turned its back on residents of the neighborhood.
Ameren Illinois has completed its cleanup of the property where a manufactured gas plant used to sit near Fifth and Hill streets. The utility did that voluntarily under the oversight of the Illinois EPA, and both agencies agree that the cleanup is complete.
Meanwhile, residents for years have contended that Ameren did not go far enough in its cleanup and the carcinogenic byproducts of the manufactured gas plant — which has long since been razed — still remain in the soil around their homes. The plant produced natural gas using a chemical process that left coal tar as a byproduct. The material contains benzene and other potentially harmful chemicals.
"After all that, we still have not heard from the EPA," Lewis said. "Residents of this neighborhood cannot wait any longer for the Illinois EPA."
The residents were told there were no further plans to clean up the area, and they say it's been a year and a half since they have heard anything from the state agency.
Ameren never operated the plant, but it acquired the property and was left responsible for its cleanup through decades of business transfers. It is one of many former manufactured gas plant sites throughout the state that have either undergone or will undergo a voluntary environmental cleanup.
"The Illinois EPA has let us down," said M.D. Pelmore, who lives less than a block from the Fifth and Hill site. "They know that we live in a contaminated neighborhood."
They are now hoping the U.S. EPA will do something. On Thursday, they sent a letter to the federal agency's regional administrator and said they are dissatisfied with the state's oversight and what they think is a lacking cleanup.
The cleanup is complicated somewhat by the existence of a chemical waste landfill directly above the Mahomet Aquifer in Clinton. That landfill in recent years has become the target of government officials and others who say storing dangerous chemicals above the source of drinking water for roughly 750,000 people in central Illinois is a bad idea.
But chemicals extracted from these site cleanups have to go somewhere, and officials say the Clinton landfill has already begun accepting excavated soils from former manufactured gas plant sites. Local residents don't want the chemicals they believe to be in their soil to end up in their drinking water.
"Toxic MGP (manufactured gas plant) waste is no longer a threat to just this neighborhood," said Claudia Lennhoff, the director of Champaign County Health Care Consumers.
The landfill is operating with a permit from the Illinois EPA, and landfill officials assure that the highly engineered waste unit will safely hold the chemicals for centuries.
That will be one of the topics discussed during the meeting at the library on Saturday. Residents from the Fifth and Hill neighborhood plan to pass a petition asking the governor to rescind that permit and stop the landfill from accepting the special chemicals — "the same kind of toxic MGP waste that was excavated from this site under cover of tent because it is so dangerous," Lennhoff said.
But it's not just a danger to the Fifth and Hill neighborhood anymore, Pelmore said. He believes that chemicals that go to the Clinton site pose a risk to the aquifer.
"All of us," he said. "If you live in Champaign-Urbana, you're going to be affected by that."
The public will get another chance to learn more about the Mahomet Aquifer and how it may be affected by chemical waste being buried at a landfill in Clinton this Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The city of Champaign is sponsoring a "Mahomet Aquifer summit" at the Champaign Public Library, 200 W. Green St., where information is scheduled to be presented to help attendees "better understand the real and potentially catastrophic threat that this chemical waste dump poses to the region," according to a city news release.
The landfill in recent years has been the target of government officials who are looking to block a federal permit that would allow the landfill to bury toxic waste like polychlorinated biphenyls. With a state permit, they say it is already accepting other kinds of potentially harmful waste.
More information and ways the public can get involved will be presented on Saturday.