Act now to support Mahomet Aquifer
By Steve Carter and Bruce Hannon
Take a shower. Brush your teeth. Brew coffee. For most of us in this community these are part of a daily routine. A routine made possible by the Mahomet Aquifer. Our local communities sit above a layer of rock, sand, gravel and silt that provides us all with an abundant and pristine source of water.
The source of the water we drink, the water that irrigates our crops and the water that fuels economic development in our community, the sole source of that water in our community.
The emphasis here is on sole. There is only one source of water. All it takes is one spill, one leak or one environmental misstep to turn something we take for granted — clean, running water — into a scarce and expensive commodity.
It can happen before you know it. Ask the residents of Charleston, West Virginia. It was just a few months ago that we all watched as this state capital city was virtually shut down when the Elk River — their sole source of water — was contaminated by a leak from an industrial site.
Our own aquifer faces a similar threat right now. But unlike the people of Charleston who were taken by surprise, our community is not only aware of the threat, but we have the opportunity to take an important first step to head off that danger by obtaining a Sole Source Aquifer designation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for our aquifer.
A waste disposal company, Area Disposal Service, has applied for approval from the USEPA to accept PCB-contaminated waste regulated by the Federal Toxic Substances Control Act at the landfill it owns in Clinton. That landfill is located directly above the aquifer.
If approved, the Clinton landfill would be one of only two authorized to accept this highly toxic substance in a region which spans Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.
Yet, recent studies by the Illinois State Water Survey concluded that based on an understanding of the glacial geology and connections to the surface across the aquifer, it is unreasonable to assume that the clay layer beneath the landfill does not have pathways to the aquifer.
PCBs are insidious water contaminants that are notoriously difficult to clean up once the damage is done. Human health impacts of PCB contamination range from cancer to neurological disorders to reproductive problems. Disposing of them in a landfill sited on top of our only water supply is simply an unacceptable risk.
Sole Source Aquifer status, if approved, would automatically trigger new layers of environmental review and protection for the Mahomet Aquifer. The designation would require review of federally-funded projects near the aquifer and set higher safety standards for landfills over the aquifer. Also, federal, state and local governments would have notice to take the importance of the aquifer as a sole water source into consideration in decisions which could impact it. In this case, those considerations could factor heavily into the decision whether or not to authorize the PCB permit request.
A coalition of concerned citizens, local governments, the University of Illinois and the Illinois-American Water Company filed an application seeking sole source designation in 2012. The USEPA has indicated that the Mahomet Aquifer does meet the Sole Source Aquifer technical requirements and the agency is prepared to approve that official status pending the results of a final public comment period going on now.
We encourage all members of our community to take advantage of this opportunity to protect our water supply. The designation is not a guarantee and a strong show of public support could be important.
You can voice your opinion in person at one of two public hearings sponsored by USEPA: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Hilton Garden Inn, Champaign; or, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Best Western Ashland House Hotel in Morton. Oral and written comments will be accepted at both hearings. Informational sessions in advance of the public hearings will run from 6:30 p.m. to 7:15 p.m. on both evenings. Written comments can also be addressed to William Spaulding, USEPA (WG-15), 77 W. Jackson Blvd., Chicago, IL 60604-3590 or emailed to: Spaulding.firstname.lastname@example.org.
This Sole Source Aquifer status is simply a formal, legal recognition of an obvious and inarguable fact: The Mahomet Aquifer is our only viable source of clean, fresh water in this community. It doesn't change how that water is delivered. It doesn't change how we choose to use that water. It simply gives us all a little more peace of mind that this water will be available when we need it.
Steve Carter, now retired, was Champaign's city manager from 1985 to 2013. Bruce Hannon, who has a Ph.D. in engineering mechanics, is an emeritus professor in geography.