Advocacy group seeking more data from Ameren on Fifth and Hill cleanup

Advocacy group seeking more data from Ameren on Fifth and Hill cleanup

CHAMPAIGN — A decade after Ameren Illinois began cleaning up the site of its former manufactured-gas plant on Champaign's north side, a local consumer group is urging the utility to go public with its most recent years' worth of environmental monitoring information in the neighborhood where the plant used to be.

Ameren began removing chemical contamination from the site of the plant at Fifth and Hill streets in 2009, and removed some remaining coal tar from the west side of the site in 2017.

But the utility hasn't shared the results of its ongoing testing of the site with the public since 2016, according to Claudia Lennhoff, executive director of Champaign County Health Care Consumers.

She and her organization also suspect toxic contamination remains off the actual plant grounds in this neighborhood, Lennhoff said.

"This isn't over yet," she said. "The neighborhood has not been cleaned up. Ameren's property has been cleaned up — we don't know how effectively, because we haven't seen the data."

Lennhoff and her organization plan to present an update on the cleanup status at a public meeting planned for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Douglass Branch of the Champaign Public Library, 504 E. Grove St., C.

The meeting is intended, in part, to alert newer residents in this area to the presence of the former plant site and that they may be living with remaining contamination in their midst, Lennhoff said.

The site of the former gas plant, which operated from 1887 to 1953, is now a 3.5-acre fenced-in vacant lot.

After the plant closed, coal tar and other production waste linked to multiple health hazards was left behind, according to the advocacy group.

Illinois EPA spokeswoman Kim Biggs said Ameren's former plant site is enrolled in the agency's voluntary Site Remediation Program, and all work done at the site has been reviewed and approved by the agency.

Ground water monitoring has been conducted annually since 1997, and quarterly since 2008, with all 2017 quarterly testing approved by the IEPA last September, Biggs said.

Both the IEPA and Ameren have contended that potential ground water contamination isn't threatening the water supply, because the city has prohibited private water wells in this neighborhood, and the water being supplied to homes by Illinois American Water is subject to testing.

Dave Palmer, manager of remediation projects for Ameren Illinois, said based on the utility's 2018 data, there is one well south of the plant site in which ground water concentrations exceeded the acceptable level. However, he said, it's a deep well, and concentration levels there aren't believed to pose a health risk.

Palmer said Ameren continues to monitor both on-site and off-site in the Fifth and Hill neighborhood, and results indicate there aren't potential health and environmental risks for people living there.

"It's fine to live there," he said.

Meanwhile, Ameren has also evaluated two other properties it bought in this neighborhood and found cleanup wasn't needed at one of them, at 412 E. Hill St., Palmer said. Cleanup at the other lot, at 507 E. Washington St., is completed pending IEPA approval, he said.

Ameren is still evaluating the impact of contamination under the roadway in this area and whether it can be addressed without taking out the road, he said.

One city official said she hasn't been in contact with Ameren about the former plant site for about a year.

At one point, Ameren indicated there was some remaining contamination in the public right-of-way that would need to be addressed, said Eleanor Blackmon, assistant city engineer for Champaign. But her last contact with an Ameren point person for the cleanup was in May 2018, she said.

What the local group hopes to avoid is Ameren getting a clean bill of health from the IEPA in connection with the former gas-plant contamination before Fifth and Hill neighbors get a chance to make sure it's all been cleaned up, Lennhoff said.

She and her group also hope to enlist support at the public meeting this week to nudge city officials and state legislators to stand up for the Fifth and Hill neighborhood.

"This is really a failure on the part of the Illinois EPA and the city of Champaign to try and protect the residents of that neighborhood," Lennhoff said.