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Neighbors, environment experts discuss former toxic site

By Dan Petrella/CHAMPAIGN -- Residents of a Champaign neighborhood surrounding a former manufactured gas plant have gained a new ally in their push to change a law that they believe allows the power utility AmerenIP to leave contaminated groundwater at the site.

City Council member Will Kyles, who represents the area around Fifth and Hill streets, said he supports amending a 2007 ordinance governing the city's groundwater to exclude the neighborhood. He made the announcement Monday night at a community meeting held by the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign.

"I don't believe in repealing the whole ordinance, but I do believe in repealing it for the site,' Kyles told an audience of more than 50 at Provena Covenant Medical Center in Urbana.

The 3.5-acre site was contaminated with benzene and other chemicals produced by the plant that operated there from 1869 until 1960. For more than a year, Ameren has been working to remove and replace contaminated soil under a plan approved by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. The company and its subsidiaries are responsible for 88 of the more than 100 such sites statewide, according to its most recent filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

AmerenIP spokesman Leigh Morris said removal of the groundwater isn't necessary to protect human health or the environment '“ a view that is shared by the Illinois EPA.

"The groundwater does not pose a human health or environmental risk,' Morris said.

Amending the ordinance most likely wouldn't require Ameren to clean up contaminated groundwater on its property, Kyles said after the meeting.

"It does mean that if something is found on a resident's site, Ameren can't use the ordinance to say, '˜We're not going to clean this up,' ' he said.

The change would give residents additional leverage in negotiating with Ameren if contaminated groundwater is found beneath their homes, he said.

Due in part to the 2007 ordinance, which banned the drilling of new wells within the city, the Illinois EPA is not requiring the company to remove contaminated groundwater. The ordinance was adopted to expedite the cleanup process and protect residents from exposure, according to city documents.

The 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign, a group of residents that organized with the help of Champaign County Health Care Consumers, called Monday's meeting to give the public a chance to meet with environment experts the group has hired to study the site.

Earlier in the day, the groups and their experts met with Illinois EPA and city officials, including Kyles, to discuss the groundwater ordinance. The City Council plans to hold a study session on the issue sometime this year.

The experts '“ hydrogeologist Mark Zeko of Santa Ana, Calif.-based Environmental Engineering & Contracting, Inc. and Robert Bowcock, founder of Claremont, Calif.-based Integrated Resource Management '“ said one of their main concerns is that contaminated groundwater underneath residents' home is emitting benzene vapors that can seep in through cracks in their foundations and floor slabs.

"My concern from a scientists' perspective is the groundwater is a contributing vehicle for migration' of chemicals from the former plant site into the surrounding neighborhood, Bowcock said.

Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene in the air can cause leukemia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Zeko conducted testing beneath six area homes and outside a seventh and detected benzene at levels above guidelines recommended by the U.S. EPA. However, the levels were below standards the state EPA plans to propose to the Illinois Pollution Control Board by year's end.         

Morris, the AmerenIP spokesman, said the levels detected through testing by the company's consultants and the resident group's experts are significantly lower than the forthcoming state standards, which are intended to prevent health and environmental risks.

"There are no human health and environmental risks from vapor intrusion,' he said. "There is no data to even suggest that groundwater or anything else associated with the Champaign [manufactured gas plant] site could cause vapors. Any vapors detected may be background in nature.'

Eileen Oldham, 48, a longtime resident of East Church Street, lives in one of the homes that were tested.

"In our sump-pump well, everyone once and a while, there's this residue that collects in it,' she said, "and it's really gross, and our sump-pump well gives off a terrible odor.'

Since learning about the contamination at community meeting in late 2007, some residents have complained of health problems they believe are associated with the site, from headaches and acid reflux to reproductive problems and rare cancers.

The Illinois EPA has long said the site poses no health risks to area residents. In addition, Illinois Department of Public Health reviews of soil-testing data from the site determined that "trespassing on the site poses no apparent public health hazard' and that there was no apparent increased risk of cancer or other health hazards associated with exposure to surface soil near the site.

Zeko and Bowcock said their goal Monday night was to arm residents with the information they need to push for additional testing in the neighborhood around the site.

Greg Dunn, manger of the Illinois EPA's voluntary site remediation unit, has told area residents that the agency will test soil, groundwater and sump-pump water at any residence at the owner's request. So far, only one person has taken him up on the offer, he said.

At Monday's meeting, community organizers with Champaign County Health Care Consumers encouraged residents to "ring his phone off the hook.'

Grant Antoline, one of the organizers, said he was encouraged by Kyles support for amending the groundwater ordinance. But he said he would like to see the law, which he sees as a roadblock to proper pollution cleanup, repealed.

"Our consultants are saying the city really has an opportunity to get out of the way,' Antoline said. "I hope that doesn't fall on deaf ears.' 

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