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Toxic site neighbors still worried over health hazards

By Dan Petrella/CU-CitizenAccess '” For more than a year, M.D. Pelmore and his neighbors around Fifth and Hill streets in Champaign have watched as a gigantic white tent has been moved around the fenced-in lot at the center of their neighborhood.

Since the middle of last year, the power utility AmerenIP has been working underneath the tent to clean up soil contaminated with benzene and other chemicals. The chemicals were produced by the manufactured gas plant that operated on the site from 1869 until 1960.

The company has removed about 114,000 tons of material so far, replacing it with clean soil and gravel, according to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Ameren says it has spent $14 million on the cleanup effort, with another $17 million budgeted to complete the project by May.

The site is one of more than 100 former manufactured gas plant sites identified in Illinois that have been cleaned-up or are on a state list to be remedied. AmerenIP and other subsidiaries of its parent company are responsible for 88 of those sites, according to the company's most recent filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Ameren expects to have all the sites cleaned up by 2017.

The 1987 cleanup of a site in Taylorville led to a lawsuit in which four families alleged that their children got neuroblastoma, a rare cancer of the peripheral nervous system, as a result of the project. In 1998, a jury awarded the families $3.2 million, a verdict that the Illinois Supreme Court upheld in 2002. 

What concerns Pelmore and some of his Champaign neighbors is what Ameren is leaving behind. 

"We hope to make them clean up the groundwater,' said Pelmore, 73, a retired UPS worker who has lived across the street from the site for 30 years.

A group of neighborhood residents calling themselves the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign are worried about health problems they believe are associated with the contaminated groundwater and its vapors. 

Due in part to a 2007 Champaign ordinance banning the drilling of new wells within the city, the Illinois EPA is not requiring Ameren to remove contaminated groundwater from the site.

"If the contamination was anywhere near any private wells, that would be a big risk,' Stan Black, the Illinois EPA's spokesman for the site, said.

But the groundwater doesn't pose any threat to the health of residents in the area, he said. 


AmerenIP spokesman Leigh Morris said the company considers all possible health and environmental impacts when creating plans to clean up manufactured gas plant sites and works within the confines of Illinois EPA regulations.

"This site is no different. The focus of the Illinois EPA regulations is to manage human health and environmental risks,' he said. "Remediation of groundwater at this site is not necessary to address human health and environmental risks. The groundwater does not pose a human health or environmental risk.'

The neighborhood group, which was organized with the help of Champaign County Health Care Consumers, will hold a meeting at 6 p.m. Monday in the first floor conference room at Provena Covenant Medical Center, 1400 W. Park St., Urbana. Residents will talk with environmental consultants the consumers group has hired to study the site. 

One of the consultants, hydrogeologist Mark Zeko of Santa Ana, Calif.-based Environmental Engineering & Contracting, Inc., issued a report in June calling for more extensive investigation of historic waste-disposal practices at the plant, including the possible dumping of waste into nearby Boneyard Creek. He called for further testing to determine how far away from the site contamination has migrated. 

"What they found leaves them to believe much, much more testing is needed to determine the full extent of the contamination,' Claudia Lennhoff, executive director of Champaign County Health Care Consumers, said.

At Monday's meeting, Zeko and Robert Bowcock, founder of Claremont, Calif.-based Integrated Resource Management, will present the research they have conducted and their plans for future investigation. They will also discuss Champaign's groundwater ordinance and take questions from residents. 

One of the most startling findings so far, Lennhoff said, was the result of testing done beneath six homes in the area. 

Environmental Engineering & Contracting found benzene vapors in all six homes and outside a seventh above recommended U.S. EPA guidelines, according to the report. 

But Greg Dunn, manager of the Illinois EPA's voluntary site remediation unit, said his agency uses a different standard, which allows for a higher concentration of vapor. This standard, which the state EPA will propose to the Illinois Pollution Control Board for formal adoption by year's end, has been reviewed by the U.S. EPA and will protect human health, he said. 

While the federal recommendations have to take into account sandier soils that are more gas-permeable, Illinois' clay soil makes vapor intrusion more difficult, Black said.

"It's not surprising that if you're talking about a standard that would work nationwide, they'd allow for the worst-case scenario,' he said.

Dunn, who reviewed Zeko's report and responded with a letter expressing his concerns about its methods and findings, said the vapor levels found by the consultants' testing are similar to previous soil tests conducted outside area homes and are well below the threshold for human safety. 

But Grant Antoline, a Champaign County Health Care Consumers community organizer working with the resident group, said the concentration of vapor detected isn't what's important. 

"Regardless of the levels, the fact that these chemicals that are associated with a former manufactured gas plant are inside someone's home is a problem,' he said.

When a pair of University of Illinois urban planning students met with neighborhood residents in December 2007 to share information they'd gathered about the site, the residents began talking about health problems ranging from headaches, tingling in the extremities and acid reflux to bleeding disorders and rare forms of cancer, Lennhoff and Antoline said. 

"It's really eye-opening to get a large group of people in a room together and get them talking about it,' Antoline said. 

But the Illinois EPA has long said that the site poses no health risks to residents in the area.

There is no "scientifically accurate' information on which to base claims of health problems associated with the site, and most residents in the area aren't concerned for their health, Black added.

"There have been relatively few people who have expressed their concerns, and we've tried to address those concerns,' Black said. 

In 2008, the Illinois Department of Public Health, in cooperation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, reviewed soil-testing data from the site. The department determined, in separate reports in June and September of that year, 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.  (see related documents)

The September report recommended that Ameren conduct additional soil and water testing around the site and said the Department of Public Health would review the results.

In addition to the Monday evening meeting, members of the neighborhood group, Champaign County Health Care Consumers and their environmental consultants will meet with Champaign and Illinois EPA officials earlier in the day to discuss concerns about the city's groundwater ordinance. 

"I can't understand how the city of Champaign can have a groundwater ordinance where a big company can pollute the water and not clean it up and turn around and pass a law where a dog pooh-pooh on your law, you got to clean it up,' Pelmore said.

In a report to the City Council when the ordinance was passed, City Manager Steven Carter said it would allow for faster cleanup of contaminated sites and prevent residents from being exposed to contaminated groundwater.

After a year of lobbying, the group persuaded City Council members to call for a study session on the issue, which hasn't been schedule but will most likely be held later this year.

"(The ordinance is) bad for Fifth and Hill, but we also think it's just bad environmental policy for the city of Champaign,' Lennhoff said. 

Will Kyles, whose district includes the cleanup site, was one of the City Council members who voted for the study session.

He's been meeting regularly with residents in the area. While he hasn't committed to supporting changes to the ordinance, he felt it was important that his constituents' voices were heard.

"Whether we agree or disagree, it's the kind of public participation we want and hope we can get from residents all over the city,' Kyles said. 

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