Residents, Ameren dispute health risk

Though officials say the contaminated groundwater in a Champaign neighborhood will be cleaned, the issue has already left a mess of controversy.

The Fifth and Hill neighborhood in Champaign, where a manufactured gas plant used to sit, will undergo a cleanup in mid-April in which all of the contaminated soil in the area will be removed.

Leigh Morris, Ameren Illinois Utilities spokesman, said Ameren recently purchased two homes in the Fifth and Hill neighborhood, one for off-street parking and the other for cleaning up.

“We have no plans to purchase any other properties,” Morris said. “We have no intention of long-term ownerships of either of those parcels.”

While representatives of Ameren, Champaign’s primary utilities supplier, have said the groundwater underneath the site has not spread or entered the basements of residents, many residents and officials believe the water is still hazardous to their health.

“I think it’s just wishful thinking and negligent to say that contaminated groundwater is not going to affect people’s health, or in the environment, or that it stays in one place,” said Claudia Lenhoff, executive director of Champaign County Health Care Consumers. “That’s just ridiculous.”

Lenhoff said she believes Ameren is denying that the groundwater is dangerous for financial reasons.

“What’s very clear is that they just do not want to go to the expense of doing a thorough cleanup,” she said. “They completely deny or ignore the possibility of vapor intrusion into people’s homes from the contaminated groundwater. There are communities where this has been a problem.”

Morris said that the groundwater is not a problem.

“The groundwater never was an issue, it is not an issue, it will never be an issue,” he said. “There is no pathway to exposure. The contaminated groundwater is not spreading. Ameren Illinois has been monitoring it and for 20 years it has not expanded.”

However, Lenhoff said she believes more areas are contaminated and that the company will buy more land to avoid issues with residents in the future.

She said at the April 8 Champaign City Council meeting that she believed Ameren was being excused from the cleanup because of a city ordinance regulating wells for drinking water. She added that she believes the ordinance serves no other practical purpose than to allow Ameren to forgo the cleanup of the groundwater.

“In every community where there is an ordinance like this, the groundwater does not get cleaned up,” Lenhoff said. “The ordinance is specifically designed so that a company like Ameren can use that ordinance as an institutional control.”

Ken Pirok, Councilman for District 5, said the city and the ordinance had no bearing on whether the groundwater was cleaned up.

“I can’t believe that we have to go through this every single week,” he said. “It isn’t true that it is the city that’s keeping them from cleaning up the groundwater. It’s false and it’s a lie. You should be going to the state legislature because they are who makes this decision, not the city council.”

Whether the contaminated groundwater is actually affecting the Fifth and Hill neighborhood, the residents said they have experienced headaches, nausea and dizziness when floodwater has entered their basements. Some residents say they have also experienced negative environmental effects.

“(The groundwater) can affect the ecosystem as far as trees and other plants,” said Eileen Oldham, a neighborhood resident. “We’ve lost trees, we’ve lost a grapevine. It comes up in our sump pump. We see a greasy residue in our sump pump and it gives off a really bad odor.”

Oldham said she’s not sure whether she’ll feel safe in her neighborhood once the soil cleanup is completed.

“I’m going to wait and see just how much cleanup they’ll do,” she said.