UPDATED 4:25 p.m.
CHAMPAIGN — City officials have at least two months to respond to a letter from a health care advocacy group threatening to sue if the city does not remedy a pipe that the group says is dumping hazardous waste into the Boneyard Creek.
Champaign County Health Care Consumers executive director Claudia Lennhoff said the group found on city property next to the Boneyard Creek a discharge pipe, which she thinks likely is left over from the former site of a coal gasification plant near the intersection of Fifth and Hill streets.
City attorney Fred Stavins said his department received the 60-day notice of intent to sue on Wednesday afternoon and it is not clear at this point what the next steps are for the city.
"What they seem to be alleging is that we’ve discharged pollutants into a navigable body of water. ... I’m not exactly certain why they’re saying the city is responsible," Stavins said.
It is possible that city engineers will do their own investigation of the pipe and then determine how to proceed, Stavins said.
The history of the pipe is vague, Lennhoff said, but the contents of its residue are what she would expect to find as leftovers from a coal gasification plant like the one Ameren Illinois is working to cleanup. That plant, which has long been razed, generated energy by using a chemical process that left pollutants like coal tar and benzene.
Lennhoff said the residue from the pipe is getting into the Boneyard Creek, and the city is violating the federal Clean Water Act by allowing the pipe to exist on city property.
"Of course, we hope not to sue," Lennhoff said, but as far as she is concerned, that would require some action by the city before the 60-day deadline.
Lennhoff made the group’s intentions to sue public during a city council meeting on Tuesday night, when the council was discussing a related ordinance that the group contends lets Ameren avoid some of the cleanup responsibilities at the Fifth and Hill site.
The city council voted nearly unanimously in support of a partial repeal of that ordinance, with the only "no" vote coming from Marci Dodds, who said it should have been repealed entirely.
The city’s "groundwater restriction ordinance" prohibits residents from drilling potable water wells in areas where groundwater may be contaminated by harmful materials.
Speakers on Tuesday night, many of whom were driven to the meeting out of fear for their own health, pointed to the former site of the coal gasification plant as a source of contamination. They said groundwater traveling from underneath that site into the surrounding residential neighborhood is driving carcinogenic gases like benzene into their homes.
Ameren inherited the site through business deals and has been removing polluted soil from the property, and company officials have persistently said that the contamination at the site poses no threat to nearby residents.
Ameren has been voluntarily cleaning the site under the supervision and approval of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. In a plan the energy company submitted to the IEPA, Ameren cites the city’s groundwater restriction ordinance as a control over the groundwater — the logic being that if residents do not drink it, then it is not harmful — and the IEPA has said that is an adequate method.
Lennhoff said businesses tend to latch on to the ordinance as a tool to avoid the actual cleanup of polluted water. The Ameren site does not affect residents’ drinking water, which is pumped from the Mahomet Aquifer in a closed system, but opponents of the ordinance worry that vapors with their origin in the water are getting into homes near the site.
"The major concern for residents is the health impact over time of living at a toxic site," Lennhoff said.
That was enough to get the city council to begin considering companies that want to use the groundwater restriction ordinance to receive IEPA approval for a cleanup on a case-by-case basis. If the council denies the use of the ordinance by Ameren Illinois, the IEPA "would have the ability to go back and void that" approval, said Greg Dunn, the IEPA representative supervising the Ameren cleanup.
That would mean Ameren would need to come up with another method to address polluted groundwater if they hope to receive approval under the voluntary cleanup program, Dunn said.
That could apply to all agencies that might want to use the ordinance in the future, depending on how the city rewrites the ordinance. The details still need to be finalized and approved in a formal city council session.
The upside of the ordinance, according to city documents, is that it encourages voluntary cleanups that might not proceed if total removal of contaminants were required. It also allows for property sales and redevelopment that may have been blocked by the contamination.
"There is a societal cost to cleaning up toxic waste," said council member Tom Bruno. "I think the cost of cleaning it up is less than the probable cost of failing to clean it up."