Aquifer meeting stresses public participation
CHAMPAIGN — The focus turned to public participation on Saturday as local officials once again gathered to discuss remedies for a chemical landfill in DeWitt County, which they think threatens the natural resource on which it sits.
Speakers at the Champaign Public Library — including elected officials and representatives of local interest groups — told attendees that Clinton Landfill needs to be ordered to stop accepting chemical waste, lest it leak into and contaminate the Mahomet Aquifer, which serves as the source of drinking water for about 750,000 people in central Illinois.
And after years of trying themselves, they say it is becoming increasingly clear that the simplest way to do that would be for the public to get involved: They pushed on Saturday for a boycott of Area Disposal and Peoria Disposal Services, which own the landfill, and for residents to contact Gov. Pat Quinn and ask that he pull the landfill’s permits.
“The key is take action,” said Champaign County Board Chairman Al Kurtz. “We can talk all day long. We can say how great it’s been for us to be up on this coalition for the last six, seven years, whatever. But if we don’t take action and initiative to get done what we think is important — and this is important — nothing will get done.”
Local officials have been taking their “Mahomet Aquifer summit” on a tour of central Illinois to get out the word that they’re trying to stop Clinton Landfill from burying waste at its site directly above the natural underground reservoir, which extends across central Illinois. This time, elected officials like mayors Don Gerard (Champaign) and Laurel Prussing (Urbana), state Sen. Chapin Rose, Savoy Village Board trustee William Smith and a representative from U.S. Rep Rodney Davis’ office stopped in Champaign.
Landfill officials for years have contended that the waste unit they have built to store the garbage will keep chemicals locked away for centuries. They are seeking a federal permit to store carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls, and they already have a state permit to bury other kinds of hazardous waste.
The issue in the past years has become a source of technical and legal battles. Local government officials, including former Champaign City Manager Steve Carter, have been leading the effort, claiming that the landfill is operating outside of federal rules that regulate the disposal of toxic substances.
Speakers once again had choice words for the owners of the landfill, but they also have levied a lot of criticism lately on the failure of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to adequately enforce laws that regulate landfills. They say oversight is lacking.
“Our state and federal governments have put us in this position,” Carter said. “It’s one of the worst public policy decisions I’ve seen in my 40-some years in local government.”
A few dozen attendees were at the meeting despite torrential rainfall in the morning. Speakers now called on citizens to pick up their pens and telephones.
“I think there’s nothing more powerful than public opinion, and that has to be informed opinion,” Prussing said. “I think that’s what we’re doing here.”
In particular, a couple of speakers asked the public to put pressure on Quinn to pull the state EPA permit that already allows the landfill to store waste like soils excavated from former sites of manufactured gas plants. Quinn wrote the federal EPA in May asking that they not issue the PCB permit, but Rose pointed out that he holds the power to stop the landfill today.
“Great, we appreciate that (letter), governor,” Rose said. “How about you go back and tell your EPA to revoke the permit.”
Here's how to contact the governor: http://www2.illinois.gov/gov/Pages/ContacttheGovernor.aspx
Kurtz had a similar message and added that public pressure might be particularly effective in this election year.
“That’s an easy letter to write to the U.S. EPA,” Kurtz said. “But it’s not so easy to take a stand and pull the permits. He has to have a reason to do it.”
Battles not yet resolved
Carter, now one of the leaders of the effort to stop a DeWitt County landfill from storing chemical waste above the Mahomet Aquifer, said the group is still in “emergency response mode,” even years after the fight began.
Although speakers on Saturday pleaded with the public to apply pressure to state and federal officials, there are a few legal and technical battles that have yet to be resolved. Still pending are:
— The Mahomet Aquifer group’s application to the U.S. EPA to have it designated as a “sole-source” aquifer. The federal designation would apply extra protection and another layer of regulation to federally funded projects on top of the underground water source.
The U.S. EPA has issued preliminary approval for that designation and several weeks ago held a public hearing in Champaign. Al Wehrmann, a consultant hired to put that application together, said on Saturday that he thinks final approval could come this fall.
— A challenge to the legal status of the landfill. Local officials filed a complaint with the Illinois Pollution Control Board alleging that the landfill did not go through the appropriate approval processes when it built the waste storage unit. The pollution control board dismissed that complaint, but the group and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan have asked an appellate court to review the denial.
Champaign Assistant City Attorney Joe Hooker said on Saturday that the appeal could take awhile — it “might not even get a judgment this year.”
— The federal EPA permit that would allow the landfill to store polychlorinated biphenyls. The landfill applied for that permit in 2007, and the federal agency issued preliminary approval in 2011 — that’s when the effort opposing the permit started gaining real momentum.
Three years later and the federal agency still has yet to finalize its approval. Officials think that is largely the result of pressure from the public and elected officials.