CHAMPAIGN — Officials say a fight against a proposed chemical waste landfill above the Mahomet Aquifer in DeWitt County is growing, and a drawn-out federal permitting process may cast doubt on what was once thought to be an inevitable approval.
Seven central Illinois agencies are now part of a group trying to block a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency permit that would grant permission for Peoria-based Area Disposal Service to store hazardous chemicals known as PCBs at its landfill in Clinton. The most recent to sign on are the city of Bloomington and the Mahomet Valley Water Authority, which are joining Champaign, Urbana, Savoy, Champaign County and Normal in splitting the cost and the effort to oppose the federal permit.
Clinton Landill sits above the Mahomet Aquifer, which officials say is the source of drinking water for roughly 750,000 residents in central Illinois. Those looking to block the permit are worried that chemicals may escape the landfill and contaminate the drinking water.
Landfill officials have repeatedly said that the devices they will use to store the polychlorinated biphenyl waste meet and even go beyond state and federal regulations. They say a chemical waste unit would pose no threat to the region's drinking water.
Polychlorinated biphenyl waste, according to the EPA, has been demonstrated to cause cancer. PCB materials were banned by the EPA in 1979, but the products had been in production for about 50 years before that and are still being thrown away.
Chris Coulter, vice president of Area Disposal Service, said last year that storing PCBs in the landfill could actually be beneficial to the environment. He said there are 38.6 million cubic yards of the chemicals on the loose and contaminating the Great Lakes region alone, and storing them in a closed landfill would keep them contained.
Coulter could not be reached for further comment on Thursday afternoon.
The U.S. EPA has already granted preliminary approval of the permit that would allow Clinton Landfill to move forward with its plans, and officials were expecting to hear final approval in late 2011. But that final word is still pending, and local officials are now starting to wonder if the EPA is second-guessing its initial decision.
"If it were that clear that was going to be the decision, I think they would have made it by now," said Joe Hooker, Champaign assistant city attorney.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin may have helped delay an EPA decision, said City Manager Steve Carter. He and other U.S. legislators have been tracking the debate.
Officials are also preparing other routes they hope might block the landfill's plans. They can seek a "sole-source aquifer" designation from the EPA, which would put more stringent protection on the water source as the agency considers permits like the one that is pending now.
Officials would essentially need to prove that the Mahomet Aquifer is the only viable source of drinking water for most residents in a given region. Hooker said that an Illinois State Water Survey hydrogeologist who has been advising the city on technical matters has a "pretty high degree of confidence that it'll meet all those standards."
And further, the hydrogeologist believes that the Illinois EPA would not renew a chemical waste permit under the stricter sole-source aquifer standards, Hooker said.
That Illinois EPA permit has already been approved, but it must be renewed every five years. The Clinton Landfill's state permit is up for renewal this year, and IEPA spokesperson Maggie Carson said the agency is planning a public informational session for early April.
The consortium of area governments has retained attorneys to advise it on legal matters — that could cost as much as $12,500, Carter said. The group plans to hire consultants to prepare the technical details for a sole-source aquifer designation, and that could cost as much as $60,000. All of the costs are being split among the seven agencies in the consortium, and each will contribute an amount proportional to its population.
Government officials have needed to move relatively quickly since they joined the effort last summer, when the federal permit had all but been approved. Hooker said their late arrival is the result of the federal permitting process that does not require a lot of public notice for affected agencies.
"To me, it evidences a flawed process," Hooker said. "We should have been brought into the process earlier."