HOOPESTON — On a recent inspection of a former iron works facility in Hoopeston, Vermilion County Health Department inspector Adrianna Krzywicka spotted vapor spewing from a barrel.
Krzywicka first saw it through the lens of her camera while photographing the interior of a large, vacant building on the ironworks property, which is not secure and sits next to two community baseball diamonds.
Krzywicka, an environmental health practitioner for the Vermilion County Health Department, was participating in a late-October environmental inspection of the former New Vermilion Ironworks facility in north central Hoopeston along with Douglas Toole, director of environmental health at the county health department, and environmental engineers with Foth consulting in Champaign. The walk-through was suspended, and Toole said it will be on hold until Illinois EPA officials do some testing this month to determine what's in the various barrels on the property.
The two-block site near John Greer Elementary School functioned as an ironworks facility for more than 100 years but has been idle for some time under the latest ownership, which took over in 2007. Now, Toole said, the current owner has dissolved the business.
Toole, Krzywicka and other officials were doing an initial walk-through of the ironworks property as part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's brownfield program that targets properties where expansion and redevelopment is complicated by the presence of, or potential presence of, hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants. Cleaning up the properties protects the environment, reduces blight and makes the properties more attractive for development.
The discovery at the iron works site underscores the environmental benefit of the brownfields program, which was created at the federal level in 1995 to bolster local economic development efforts. According to the U.S. EPA, there are more than 450,000 brownfields in the nation, and cleaning up and reinvesting in them can increase the local tax base, create jobs and reuse existing infrastructure, taking development pressure off of undeveloped, open land, in addition to improving and protecting the environment.
More than two years ago, Vermilion County and Danville city officials applied for the brownfield program, and the county was awarded a $400,000 grant in April 2010 — $200,000 for hazardous substance sites and $200,000 for petroleum sites, such as former gas stations. The money is for assessment — identifying and quantifying problems and creating a plan for cleanup. Other federal grants and funding are available for the actual cleanup.
Danville officials had identified more than 100 potential brownfield sites in the city, including 40 to 50 former gas stations, but did not get a grant initially. A year later, in June 2011, the city was awarded its own $400,000 brownfield assessment grant. Like the county, the city has hired an environmental consultant but is still narrowing its potential site list for phase one assessments.
The county also had many possible sites, which it has narrowed to about a dozen, of which it's completed six phase one assessments, not including Vermilion Iron Works. That's on hold until IEPA testing determines what's in the barrels.
Toole said there are immediate and long-term concerns at the ironworks facility.
Immediate concerns are the property, including the grounds, the deteriorated buildings and the barrels inside and outside the buildings, which are easily accessed by anyone outside the property. Long-term concerns include what will need to be done with an on-site landfill used by the business. Toole said it's unknown what's in the landfill. Sampling will determine whether it needs to be capped and monitored by ground wells or if material needs to be removed.
Linda Bolton, director of business development with Vermilion Advantage, said a couple of the sites in Hoopeston, like the Dixie Business Plaza along Illinois 1, are prime locations for redevelopment. A bank owns that property now, and Bolton said the city of Hoopeston doesn't have the money to do anything with it.
"That location is perfect for some kind of business development. That location makes it a primary one to get it cleared and ready," she said.
The former Vermilion Iron Works property, however, is a more challenging site to develop, because it's not as accessible from the highway, said Bolton, who added that it needs to be cleaned for other reasons. Economic development is important, but health and safety are too, she added.
"That was probably the nastiest site I've seen," Bolton said of the iron works site. "It just made me want to run out and get a bulldozer. There is nothing you can do other than tear it down."
Although the county has several good sites it is assessing with the hopes that it will make some more marketable, there are a handful that it wanted to include, but couldn't, because the brownfield program depends on cooperation from property owners. Some sites where they couldn't get cooperation include an auto yard along Illinois 1 in Belgium, a former molded plastics manufacturing plant in Georgetown and the former General Motors Powertrain site along Interstate 74 in Tilton.
The former GM foundry buildings were scrapped out years ago, and the current owner, Agracel in Effingham, is leasing portions of the site to small businesses. Toole said they met with Agracel officials recently, but the county was not given a right-of-entry form for the site.
Toole said there has been some cleanup work done already at the location, but the redevelopment potential for that site, which has rail access and its own ramp to Interstate 74, "is huge."
"You just can't ignore it," said Toole, who explained that a landfill on the site is not an issue. He said it was used solely by the GM foundry and is now a separate piece of property and would not have been part of the brownfield project if Agracel had been willing to cooperate. As part of GM's bankruptcy, a trust fund was set up to help pay for the cleanup of closed General Motors sites, and the landfill in Tilton was included in that roster of sites. IEPA continues to monitor that landfill, which hasn't received any refuse since about 1995 and doesn't have any issues, said Toole, who walks the site once a year for the IEPA.
Dean Bingham with Agracel said the company has sold portions of the property to a concrete company, an asphalt company and a machining company and has leased another portion. As for not granting access for the brownfields process, he said General Motors “already did everything they needed to do,” and the IEPA provided a closure report, which is several years old now. Bingham said Agracel bought the property more than a dozen years ago and the majority of the work by GM was done since Agracel purchased it. “We don’t believe there’s any need for it,” he said. Chris Milliken, planning and zoning manager with the city of Danville, said getting cooperation from property owners has been an issue in the city's brownfields process. He said one property owner that has two properties said he has no plans for the sites at this time and does not want to participate. But, Milliken said, they want property owners to realize this is a "win-win" opportunity for them, because environmental assessments would have to be done anyway when selling or redeveloping their sites, and this is an opportunity for the assessments to be done at no cost to them.
Toole said the county is concentrating on the property owners willing to cooperate.
"So we will focus on those and hope others change their minds at some point in the future," said Toole, who added that the brownfields program is not designed to open up property owners to liability but it does formally identify that a problem exists.
But problems are already suspected on most of the properties, and Toole said the upside is that some sites can be cleared of any suspected contamination issues, like an old gas station with tanks that haven't leaked.
Bolton said that's one of the major reasons for the program.
"Do we have a real problem here or is this something we can clean up very easily and get it back on the market?" Bolton said.
Vermilion County brownfield sites
The Vermilion County Health Department is using a federal brownfields grant to determine whether the following sites are contaminated and to what extent, and if so, it will also determine a cleanup plan. The county can later apply for additional federal funds for cleanup. The city of Danville was also awarded a federal brownfields grant and is going through the same process but has not yet identified the sites on which it will focus.
Vermilion Ironworks: Former industrial facility at 200 North 6th Ave., the corner of Honeywell Avenue and North 6th Avenue. Phase I brownfield inspection interrupted recently when officials discovered old chemical barrels leaking on the site, which is unsecured and adjacent to two baseball fields.
Dixie Business Plaza: Large vacant building and former industrial site that's housed multiple businesses through the years. At 325 South Dixie Highway on Illinois 1 just north of Illinois 9.
430 W. Main St.: Former gas station (concrete pad is all that remains) next to the Silgan Container Manufacturing plant.
NAPA site: Vacant former auto supply shop and repair garage at 109 N. Market St. in downtown Hoopeston about one block north of Main Street.
109 W. Main St.: Former Shell gas station, at intersection with 1st Avenue.
701 S. Chicago St.: Former gas station along Illinois 1 on south end of the village; it's connected to a functioning business, Merita's Family Restaurant.
Fireworks site: Former fireworks manufacturing site that includes several buildings on a 15-acre site behind 403 and 405 E. 14th Street in rural Danville; site stretches south to Greenwood Cemetery Road along Interstate 74.