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Neighbors threaten lawsuit in campaign against toxic site

By Dan Petrella/CU-CitizenAccess - Wading in the frigid water of Boneyard Creek on Monday afternoon, a small team of community activists and environmental consultants collected samples from a clay pipe they believe once carried toxic chemicals from a nearby factory and continues to pollute the stream.

The chemicals, they said, came from the manufactured-gas plant that once stood about half a mile away, at the intersection of Fifth and Hill streets in Champaign. The site, owned by the power utility Ameren Illinois, has been a source of controversy since a pair of University of Illinois urban planning students brought its history to the attention of residents in 2007. Ameren has been cleaning up the site for more than a year under a voluntary program overseen by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

The Champaign County Health Care Consumers, an advocacy group working with area residents, notified the city Tuesday that it intends to file a lawsuit alleging violations of the Clean Water Act. The pipe empties into the creek on government property, and the group will file the suit if the city does not address the issue within 60 days, according to a letter addressed to Mayor Gerald Schweighart.

Click the image to see a map of the toxic clean up site

If the city wishes to discuss possibly remedies and avoid legal action, the letter suggests officials “initiate those discussions within 10 days of receiving this notice so that a meeting can be arranged and so that negotiations may be completed before the end of the 60-day notice period.”

City attorney Fred Stavins said the city received the letter on Wednesday. “It makes it sound like we’re dumping hazardous materials into the Boneyard Creek,” he said.

Stavins said engineers with the Public Works Department have already been out to look at the “dirt-filled” pipe and begin investigating.

“There are many pipes like this along the Boneyard Creek,” he said. “One of the first steps is to determine where it comes from.”

The notice of intent to sue is the latest move in a campaign to pressure officials with the city, the Illinois EPA and Ameren to address concerns some neighbors have about the former plant.

At the heart of the dispute is whether benzene and other toxic chemicals associated with the site, which operated from 1869 until the mid-1950s, are long-term health hazards for area residents. The 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign, organized with help from the Health Care Consumers, argues that chemicals left behind at the site have migrated into the surrounding neighborhood and caused a host of health problems, from chronic headaches to serious reproductive problems and rare cancers.

Dan Petrella/CU-CitizenAccess - The 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign believes this pipe once carried waste from the manfacutred-gas plant to Boneyard Creek. Ameren says it has found no evidence that the pipe leads to the site.

Ameren and the Illinois EPA, on the other hand, have long insisted that the site poses no immediate or long-term health risks to residents, pointing to decades of testing they say supports these conclusions.

“It’s a scientific position,” Leigh Morris, an Ameren Illinois spokesman, said. “It’s not only what we have found; the Illinois EPA agrees with it. Science is science.

“The site does not, has not and will not pose any risk to human health or safety,” he said.

The utility and the neighborhood group also disagree about the pipe at the center of the group’s threatened legal action.

 In a report last year, the group’s environmental consultants cited a 1915 document, the “Report on Contamination of the Boneyard in Champaign by Gas House Wastes,” which says, “An 8 inch tile leads from the plant westward along the Big Four tracks about five blocks and conveys the waste water … to the Boneyard.”

Using this information, Claudia Lennhoff, executive director of the health care group, and community organizer Grant Antoline located a pipe north of Washington Street, just south of where the north-south and east-west railroad tracks intersect. They collected samples and sent them for preliminary testing.

“Everything they found was consistent with what you would find from a former manufactured-gas plant,” Lennhoff said.

She and Antoline returned to the site this week with environmental consultants Bob Bowcock and Mark Zeko. Dressed in chest waders and rubber boots, they dug away snow covering the pipe, which sits at the bottom of a steep bank. They collected new samples that will be sent to a lab for additional testing. It should take about three weeks to receive the results, they said.

 “It was an old clay pipe. It probably leaked all the time,” Zeko said. “There’s probably contamination all along that pipe line between the site and Boneyard Creek.”

The neighborhood group is pushing for a more extensive investigation. But Ameren said it has already conducted thorough excavation at the former plant site.

“There is no pipeline that runs into our property we have ever found,” Morris said. “We have no idea what that pipe is, but it doesn’t come back into our site.”

Greg Dunn, who oversees Ameren’s voluntary site cleanup for the Illinois EPA, said he walked along Boneyard Creek between the railroad tracks and Washington Street in the fall and wasn’t able to spot the pipe. After the group made its findings public at a Monday afternoon news conference, held at a home across the street from the plant site, Dunn said he notified the agency’s local office.

The consultants did not notify him about the exact location of the pipe so that the agency could collect its own samples, he said. Because the pipe is located several blocks west of the cleanup site, it will not fall under the jurisdiction of the voluntary site remediation program.

“However, I have submitted what little information I have to our Field Office in Champaign to ascertain if there are any violations of the Environmental Protection Act and to determine the Illinois EPA’s next steps,” Dunn wrote in an e-mail.

Meanwhile, the Champaign City Council has given its support for repealing an ordinance that could allow Ameren to leave contaminated groundwater in place after the site cleanup is finished this summer.

The current groundwater restriction ordinance, passed in 2007, prohibits the drilling of new wells within the city. Companies cleaning up polluted properties can cite the law as a means of limiting exposure to contamination. This allows for sites to be cleaned up and returned to use more quickly while limiting potential risks to the surrounding community, Eleanor Blackmon, an assistant city engineer, said.

The existing ordinance has already been used at four sites in the city, including former gas stations on North Prospect Avenue and East Green Street that are now a Dunkin Donuts and a Niro’s Gyros restaurant, respectively.

But members of the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign, who packed Tuesday night’s council study session on the issue, believe the law is exposing them to continued health risks from the Ameren-owned site.

The group argues that vapors from the contaminated water are seeping into homes around the site and causing health problems that are common throughout the neighborhood.  

Their consultants tested beneath six homes last year and found levels of benzene above U.S. EPA guidelines. Long-term exposure to benzene has been shown to cause leukemia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.    

Lillian Driver, who runs a home day care in the neighborhood, said she wakes up nearly every morning with a headache. She fears that as word spreads about the polluted site, she might lose her business.

“Who’s going to compensate me?” she said during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting. “Had I known this was a toxic site, there is no way I would have put these children in this environment. Nor would I allow my family to be in this environment.”

But the Illinois EPA and Ameren have said the consultants’ tests, which are consistent with their own testing in the area, show the presence of vapors at levels below proposed state standards. The proposed standards are less stringent than the federal guidelines.

The state currently has no laws setting limits on exposure to vapors through indoor inhalation, but Illinois Pollution Control Board is considering new rules the state EPA proposed late last year. If these rules are implemented, ordinances like Champaign’s could not be used as an alternative to treating or containing contaminated groundwater in cases where vapor levels exceed the state standards.

“Looking at the data that we have in front of us, both from soil and groundwater samples collected and soil-gas samples collected by both Ameren and the outside consultant, the agency sees no risk in the groundwater at this point,” Dunn told the City Council.

Council member Will Kyles, whose district includes the Ameren site, once shared that point of view.

“As we continue to progress, things continue to come up,” Kyles said. “And that leads to questioning, ‘Am I wrong in believing we shouldn’t repeal that ordinance?’ ”

Along with almost every other council member, Kyles voiced support in an advisory vote for repealing the existing ordinance and adopting a new law that would consider the use of groundwater restrictions on a case-by-case basis. The proposed changes would not affect the four sites already using the current law.

Council member Marci Dodds supported repealing the ordinance citywide.

The matter will require another study session and a binding council vote before any changes are made to the existing law.

Lennhoff, of the Champaign County Health Care Consumers, said her group was pleased with the outcome.

“The council really listened to the community’s concern and responded appropriately,” she said. “This is a victory for the Fifth and Hill residents, as well as for all residents of the city of Champaign, because it’s a terrible idea to have a city ordinance that allows for the widespread toxic contamination of our groundwater.”

She said she hopes the residents and the city can resolve the concerns about the pipe at Boneyard Creek without going to court.

“Of course we hope not to sue,” she told the council Tuesday. “We are looking for remediation; we’re looking for a cleanup, and we hope to work with you on that.”


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