CHAMPAIGN – Like so many others in Champaign, M.D. Pelmore's basement sump pump goes into overdrive during the rainy season to keep groundwater at bay.
But every once in awhile there's something else: an unusual smell he can't quite place.
Pelmore lives steps away from the 3.5-acre site of a former coal gasification plant, now the focus of a cleanup effort by AmerenIP.
And that makes him nervous.
He built his basement over an old abandoned water well, and he's worried that contaminated groundwater or vapors might somehow find their way into his home.
He's also worried about what his children might have been exposed to years ago, when it was common for youngsters to play on the now fenced-off site.
"I don't think they told us anything about how dangerous all this stuff was," he said recently.
Pelmore raised his concerns at an open house held this month by AmerenIP at the Salem Baptist Church, where company officials talked informally about their plans to excavate and clean up the old coal gas site, possibly as soon as next year.
He said AmerenIP officials have agreed to test his house and basement for contaminants the next time water infiltrates his basement.
Pelmore said he was unaware of the history of the former coal gasification site, which operated at least from 1887 until the early 1950s, until a citizens' group started publicizing the issue a couple of months ago.
That group is now calling its efforts the Fifth and Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign. It's a coalition of two local community action organizations, the CU Citizens for Peace & Justice and the Champaign County Health Care Consumers, as well as neighborhood residents.
Coalition members held a neighborhood meeting Jan. 19 at the Douglass Center, drawing an overflow crowd. Aaron Ammons, an Urbana resident who helped found CU Citizens for Peace & Justice, told the audience that their efforts have already begun to pay off, with Ameren's promise to try to begin a cleanup by next year.
"What we're doing right now is making people aware," he said. "Why does it take 20 years to get something done? Because there's no public outcry."
Ammons said the coalition now needs to put together a proposal asking Ameren to address environmental, medical and possibly relocation issues for the neighborhood.
The coalition includes several students from an advanced urban planning class at the University of Illinois, who helped start the movement last spring by asking the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for copies of documents about the site through a Freedom of Information Act request.
One of those students, UI grad student Chuck Allen, said the documents they eventually received last September showed that several contaminants had migrated from the site into the surrounding neighborhood to the north, west and the east.
The contaminants found on the site include volatile organic compounds such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes; and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon compounds, a class of chemicals found in coal tars.
"We found the contamination had migrated under the roadbed along Fifth Street, that it had migrated under the railroad tracks to the north ... and that it had also migrated under the foundation of a house at Fifth and Hill streets," Allen said. That information was found in contour maps provided in the FOIA response, he said.
A new site investigation report done by a consultant for Ameren shows that most of the soil samples taken at the old coal gas site are contaminated with benzene or its derivatives, as were three perimeter monitoring wells, including one at the corner of Fifth and Hill streets.
Allen describes benzene as "dangerous stuff," and he says he's worried about its effect on residents who have lived near the site for decades.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Human Services, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, describes benzene as a colorless liquid that is highly flammable and evaporates into the air very quickly. The department classifies benzene as a known carcinogen.
The agency said the major effect from long-term exposure to benzene is on the blood, stating it causes harmful effects to bone marrow and can lead to anemia. Long-term exposure to benzene in the air can cause leukemia.
Federal agencies strictly limit how much benzene can be in public drinking water and workplace air.
Ameren officials say the site poses "no immediate health threat to the public" because human exposure to benzene and other chemicals is limited. Local drinking water comes from deep wells at least 1 mile away from the site, and the site itself is fenced off to the public.
Health concerns are what brought Claudia Lennhoff, executive director of the health care consumers group, into the coalition in December, with the approval of her board of directors.
"People need real information," she said.
The goal of the coalition is to help the neighborhood fight for a thorough cleanup – not only of the site but also of any neighborhood properties where contaminants have migrated, Lennhoff said.
Other key goals:
– Determine long-term exposure. Allen and Lennhoff said they're concerned about four cancer cases the coalition found among residents who live or have lived near the site, including two cases or multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer. One of the multiple myeloma victims has died, Allen said. They also say the coalition has discovered a number of women who live near the site who have gynecological health issues.
– A transparent process. Coalition members want regular updates about progress on cleaning up the site. They say, until recently, that hasn't been happening.
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris said Ameren took over Illinois Power in 2004 and, since then, has "communicated with property owners as appropriate."
"When there is more information to share, we communicate," he said. "Lately, there's been a lot of information to share."
Ameren is not just focusing on the Champaign site, Morris noted, with a cleanup of a Pana coal gas site set to begin Feb. 13 and a cleanup of a Jacksonville site later this spring. The state's voluntary site remediation program for coal gas sites is a demanding, multiyear process that takes time, he said.
A key issue in coming months will be finding out the extent of off-site contamination and determining how it will be cleaned up. Brian Martin, a consulting environmental scientist with Ameren, said Ameren will clean up any off-site contaminants that can be traced to the site. He added that he believes the farthest contaminants have traveled off-site is 150 feet.
"If it's our contamination off-site, it's going to be our responsibility to address it," he said. "We'll be in touch with (property owners)."
Champaign City Council member Gina Jackson, whose District 1 includes the Hill and Fifth Street site, says she isn't supportive of the local coalition's efforts, accusing its leaders of "accentuating the negative in the community."
"What I really have a problem with are groups and coalitions coming in and not sitting down with people in the community and elected officials who have been working on this all along," she said. "The site is contained ... and it will be fixed next year."
"If I thought there was any danger to residents, I would be the first one screaming loud and hard."