CLINTON — U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin on Thursday said there are safer options for the disposal of toxic waste than in Clinton Landfill, and he has asked the EPA to consider the potential consequences of dumping harmful chemicals above the Mahomet Aquifer.
The Illinois Democrat was joined in Clinton by area elected officials, where landfill representatives are awaiting approval of a federal permit to begin storing polychlorinated biphenyl waste in a cell directly above the source of drinking water for roughly 750,000 central Illinois residents.
The letter to EPA regional administrator Susan Hedman is signed both by Durbin and U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who was not at the event while he continues to recover from a stroke he suffered in January. Durbin said he has been in contact with Kirk and his staff, and his counterpart is worried about the landfill, too.
"Dumping toxic chemicals like PCBs in a landfill directly above an aquifer is a dangerous thing to do," Durbin said. "We're hoping the U.S. EPA reaches the same conclusion."
The Environmental Protection Agency calls PCBs a known-carcinogen, and officials' concern is that the chemicals might break free from the landfill and make their way down to the massive underground reservoir.
"We know what one leak into this aquifer might mean, the danger it could present to the people who depend on this aquifer," Durbin said.
Landfill officials have persistently said the unit they have designed to hold the waste meets or exceeds all federal regulations and will be safe for centuries to come.
Chris Coulter, vice president of the landfill's parent company Area Disposal Service, said last year that storing PCBs in Clinton 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.
Messages left for Coulter and an attorney who represents Area Disposal Service were not returned on Thursday afternoon, but Coulter has said the chemicals are better off in the landfill than sitting at the bottom of lakes and rivers.
"That's a false choice," Durbin said. "We want it out of the Great Lakes, whether it's Waukegan Harbor or whatever. But let's not take it from one dangerous situation and put it in another dangerous situation. Let's move it to the safest possible disposal, and above an aquifer would not be on that list."
Some elected officials have taken the position that burying the waste is OK — just not over an aquifer. In the letter to the EPA, Durbin and Kirk say that four facilities are already authorized to accept PCB waste in this region, and one of those is in Illinois.
Normal Mayor Chris Koos said on Thursday said this is not a "not in our backyard" issue. He said he realizes the chemical waste needs to be stored safely, but he does not think it should be over the Mahomet Aquifer.
"Be it in our region, that's fine," Koos said. "But just not on top of our water supply."
The senators' hands in what has been an ongoing fight against the permit is important, said Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing. Champaign Mayor Don Gerard called their involvement "crucial."
"Sometimes an issue that is really blatant, obvious, common sense, it takes years to get something done," Prussing said. "But when you get a U.S. senator working on it, things start to happen."
Plans have been in place for years to store the PCBs, but central Illinois government agencies have just begun a formal opposition to the federal permit within the past year. Champaign city officials said that is because of an imperfect public notification process — not everyone who depends on the aquifer was notified of the application from the beginning.
"By the time it got to us, public comment had already passed," Gerard said.
But since a government agencies started to get involved, the EPA has delayed a decision on the application in order to more closely study the way groundwater interacts with the aquifer.
"This is an example of us having a voice," Gerard said.