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Officials, neighborhood group remain at odds over contaminated site

Last week, the city of Champaign completed excavation and plugging of a pipe that neighborhood activists believe once carried toxic chemicals from a nearby manufactured-gas plant to Boneyard Creek.

But state environmental officials and the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign still don't see eye to eye on whether the pipe is connected to the site at Fifth and Hill streets that once produced gas to light and heat homes by burning coal and oil. Power utilty Ameren Illinois now owns the site and is nearing the end of its two-year-long, voluntarily environmental cleanup of the property.

The city agreed to excavate and plug the pipe after the neighborhood group, organized by the Champaign County Health Care Consumers, threatened a lawsuit alleging violations of the Clean Water Act. (Read more about that here.)

Members of the group were present June 30 during the second phase of the excavation and found material in the pipe they believe to be toxic coal tar associated with the former manufactured-gas plant. The group previously found similar material where the pipe meets Boneyard Creek, and tests conducted on behalf of the group's environmental consultants confirmed the presence of chemicals associated with the gas-manufacturing process. (Read more here.)

Photo courtesy of Champaign County Health Care Consumers - A member of the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign holds material excavated from the pipe near Boneyard Creek.

"We're confident that what we found (on June 30) is coal tar," Claudia Lennhoff, the consumer group's executive director, said.

Lennhoff said she expects that tests on the new material, which should take a few weeks to complete, will identify chemicals connected to the site.

But Greg Dunn, who oversees Ameren Illinois' cleanup for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, remains skeptical.

"The data I have is inconclusive," Dunn said.

Testing in the area around the pipe has shown the presence of metals that are unrelated to the gas-manufacturing process and lower levels of cyanide than would be expected if the contamination was associated with the Ameren-owned site, he said.

Based on a 1915 report, the neighborhood group believes the pipe ran from the area near the plant along the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks, emptying into Boneyard Creek north of Washington Street.

However, Ameren workers excavated the northern edge of the former plant site down more than 25 feet and found no evidence of such a pipe, Dunn said.

Grant Antoline, a community organizer with Champaign County Health Care Consumers, said there is no reason to believe the pipe would be found on the Ameren property.

"The pipe isn't, and never was in that location," Antoline wrote in a email.  "I do not know why Greg Dunn consistently thinks that the (pipe's) location is on the former manufactured gas plant site itself.  At no time did anyone from our campaign tell him this."

Dunn also said historical maps of the area indicate that above-ground storage tanks for oil, apparently unrelated to the manufactured-gas plant, once stood along the tracks. They were located northwest of the site, near the intersection of Fifth and Washington streets.

These tanks could be the source of some of the metals and other contaminants found in the area of the pipe, Dunn said, adding that the Illinois EPA is working to determine who is responsible for that site. (Post continues below.)


View Pipe controversy in a larger map

Meanwhile, the city does not believe the pipe presents any danger for residents.

"Our tests did not come back indicating any sort of cause for concern," Stacy Rachel of the Champaign Public Works Department said.

But Lennhoff said her group is "very troubled" by the Illinois EPA's response, which she called "disingenuous and irresponsible."

"Basically, the Illinois EPA is covering their eyes and covering their ears and covering their noses and acting like the pipe is a mystery," she said. "What more do we need to do to prove the existence of this pipe to warrant an investigation of it, a full investigation?"

Dunn said he needs to see all the evidence before deciding what the next step is regarding concerns about the pipe.

"I just don't want to decide anything before I have all the data in front of me," he said.

In the meantime, he said he is concentrating on overseeing the completion of Ameren's site cleanup. Workers have finished the excavation work that has been done beneath a large white tent and next will focus on cleaning up soil along the property's fence line, Dunn said.

To learn more about this issue, check out some of our past coverage:


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