OAKWOOD – Bunge North America has hired a private company to drill wells at a fly ash dump site east of Oakwood, to monitor the groundwater for the presence of potential contaminants and to determine the flow of groundwater.
Deb Seidel, spokeswoman for Bunge North America in St. Louis, said the company drilled three separate groundwater-monitoring wells last week in the Grays Siding area just north of U.S. 150 and less than a mile west of the entrance to the Vermilion County Fairgrounds.
"It will take several months to get the results back," Seidel said. "They will go out frequently and check."
The testing will determine whether the fly ash is contaminating groundwater, and if so, where the water is flowing and what could be in its path.
Since 1995, more than 380,000 tons of fly ash were trucked from the Bunge Milling plant in Danville and dumped in a large ravine on private property in the Grays Siding area. Several homes are near the fly ash, which was legally dumped but had to be monitored by Bunge and by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
Fly ash is what's left over when coal is burned. Bunge uses coal at its milling plant.
Fly ash can contain potentially harmful elements such as arsenic, selenium, cadmium, chromium, copper and mercury. When dumped, those elements can leach out, harm the environment and contaminate groundwater.
Residents in the Grays Siding area have objected to the dumping for years, and the tap water of two residents has tested positive for high levels of lead.
As a result, the Illinois Department of Public Health recommended the residents not drink their water.
And last year, the IEPA's testing of the fly ash detected boron, an element known to be harmful to the environment, so the agency told Bunge to remove some of the fly ash. The dumping has ceased, and Bunge now disposes of its fly ash at a mine reclamation site elsewhere in Illinois.
Until last week, no further testing had been done at the dump site, and steps had not been taken to cap the pile with a layer of dirt or other cover, which would safeguard against leaching.
Vermilion County Board Member Lori DeYoung has advocated for change in state laws that would prevent similar dumping in the future. And recently, the law firm Kennedy and Madonna LLP in Chatham, N.Y., has become involved in the situation.
The firm specializes in representing communities that have been impacted by pollution and uses a variety of legal tools including federal citizen suits, administrative challenges and tort law to hold polluters accountable for their actions.
The firm was formed in 2000 by founding partners Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Kevin J. Madonna.
"We are currently investigating the possible threats to human health and the environment from the toxic fly-ash that was disposed of at the Grays Landfill," Madonna said Friday afternoon.
In addition to the three groundwater wells, Seidel said Bunge also will be contacting the residents in the area and asking if the company can test their well water.
Seidel said the IEPA has already sent letters to the residents notifying them of that possibility.
Residents could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.
Seidel did not know what action Bunge would take if testing concludes the wellsor groundwater are contaminated.
"We will have to see what the test results are and work with state officials to come up with the next best step," Seidel said.
Maggie Carson, spokesperson for the IEPA, said Bunge is taking this action on its own initiative, not from a IEPA directive, but Bunge is in contact and cooperation with the agency.