April 9, 2013

Concerns resurface over contaminated groundwater

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The 2.4 acre grassy, fenced-off area at the intersection of Fifth and Hill streets is the site of a former manufactured-gas plant, owned by Ameren Illinois.

Danielle Sheppard

The 2.4 acre grassy, fenced-off area at the intersection of Fifth and Hill streets is the site of a former manufactured-gas plant, owned by Ameren Illinois.

By Elise King / For CU-CitizenAccess.org — A grassroots organization still has concerns about the contaminated groundwater at the toxic site located at the intersection of Fifth and Hill streets in Champaign, Ill.

Claudia Lennhoff, executive director of the Champaign County Health Care Consumers, said her group is still worried that the groundwater contamination can spread. The site is owned by Ameren Illinois, which purchased it from Illinois Power Company.

Lennhoff, whose organization has been running the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign for several years, said the group plans to start voicing its continuing concern this spring.

Ameren Illinois spokesman Leigh Morris said that the soil remediation has since been completed and that the groundwater at the site is not a concern.

“There is no health threat, and there never was,” Leigh said, explaining that any contaminated groundwater is contained within the site.

He did confirm that Ameren has been testing the groundwater and taking samples but said that groundwater monitoring is something Ameren does at all sites.

Lennhoff said that recently the campaign had been trying to get the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to “be more cooperative” about the issue, but said the group has been struggling with that.

Lennhoff said she contacted the agency in early December, requesting that a neighborhood meeting be held to update residents about the activities on the site because people in the community had questions, she said.

Timeline of events However the agency declined her request.

“That’s pretty disheartening,” Lennhoff said. “The EPA is no help whatsoever.”

Kurt Neibergall, Illinois EPA manager of the Office of Community Relations, said they declined to host a meeting because “there’s not a lot to talk about on our end.”

He explained that Ameren and the Illinois EPA have held meetings in the past when there was something major to report, but at present they are just in between major activities.

The agency did allow Lennhoff to directly ask whatever questions she wanted via email and said she was welcome to share their answers with the public.

However, Neibergall said that many of the questions asked were better for Ameren to answer. “We cannot speak for the company,” he said.

The 2.4 acre grassy, fenced-off area at the intersection of Fifth and Hill streets is the site of a former manufactured-gas plant, which operated from 1869 until the early 1930s and then went on standby status until 1960.

The site had contaminants, including benzene, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbon and other compounds, in both the soil and ground water. Ameren voluntarily entered the site into the Illinois EPA’s Site Remediation Program and began cleaning up the soil in 2009.

The compounds found on the site can have a range of effects on human health, from acute to chronic to even cancerous.

“No further excavation on-site is planned,” Neibergall said in an email to Lennhoff, answering one of her questions about the status of the site.

Lennhoff also asked if anything would be done about properties that Ameren had purchased off-site that she said had groundwater contamination.

“As of today, those properties have not been enrolled in the Illinois EPA’s Site Remediation Program,” Neibergall said in the email.

“The IL EPA is well aware of the contamination and should be encouraging Ameren to register those properties, and if not, should be forcing Ameren to remediate those properties,” Lennhoff said.

However, when Ameren first purchased property near the site in 2009, reports in the News-Gazette said that Morris said those purchases had nothing to do with contamination concerns. “As I advised the news media at the time, the house and property came on the market at a time when Ameren Illinois was considering vehicle parking options for those working at the Fifth and Hill site … there are no contaminates impacting that property,” Morris said.

Ameren, the EPA and activist groups are not the only ones involved in this issue.

Professor Charles Werth, who works in the Civil and Environmental Engineering department at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, said he is teaching a remediation design course this semester “centered around characterizing the risk that contaminates at the Fifth and Hill site Ameren poses.”.

“In terms of the … risk exposure for surface soil, I think they’ve done a good job of cleaning up the site,” Werth said about Ameren.

However, he believes “They have not characterized the groundwater enough to know how extensive the contamination is or what the risks are.”

Werth said that after looking into Fifth and Hill, his students will develop designs for remediation technologies to clean up the site.

Ideally, Lenhoff said, the Fifth & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign wants this site to be looked into further.

“We want an investigation,” Lennhoff said.

Currently the organization has moved on to interviewing candidates running for the District 1 city council election that will be held in April, asking them if they will stand up for the community in this issue if elected.

Within the last year, however, the issue of Ameren has hardly come up within the city council.

“We added notification requirements to the Groundwater Restriction Ordinance last July,” said Eleanor Blackmon, Champaign assistant city engineer.

The ordinance, which prevents residents from drilling wells for drinking water within city limits, was previously a concern of the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights campaign.

They wanted the ordinance repealed, claiming that it gave companies like Ameren an excuse to not clean up groundwater contamination. However, city council members kept the ordinance in place, saying that it actually protected residents because no one could drill to get drinking water.

The notification requirements recently made businesses who wanted to drill more transparent to the public.

“This is the only Council action on Ameren or groundwater restriction ordinance that I am aware of in the last year,” Blackmon said.

The Fifth & Hill campaign has in general raised public awareness and voiced their concerns in the past about issues concerning the site and plans to have more public events starting this spring in hopes to push for groundwater cleanup.

However, Morris said that in the past Ameren has not been affected by the campaign. “It has no impact on how we manage the site,” Morris said, explaining that they instead focus on complying with the EPA and the laws.