Champaign toxic site gets volatile response

By Patrick Wade

An old booster house in an abandoned field with peeling white paint and rusty pipes is all that is left above the ground at the corner of Fifth and Hill streets in Champaign.

But it is what remains below the surface that has some community members calling foul.

The C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice held a meeting Saturday afternoon at the Douglass Branch Library to call community members’ attention to the toxic site.

Nearly two years ago, the group went to a University community development workshop for help informing the community. Lecturer Ken Salo of the University’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning and his students agreed to partner with the group after attending the workshop.

The manufactured gas plant that used to sit on the property primarily used coal to make a substance similar to natural gas. This process created by-products potentially harmful to human health, said Chuck Allen, a student in the University workshop and Illini Media employee.

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More than 40 years after most of the plant was razed, the by-products now sit in deposits 15 to 40 feet below the surface.

“These are highly carcinogenic compounds,” Allen said.

Among the harmful chemicals are coal tar, benzene and arsenic, which may have caused a number of cases of rare forms of cancer in the area, including leukemia and multiple myeloma, Allen said.

The only border dividing the toxic site from the rest of the neighborhood is an old chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, and a few signs warning to call a listed number before digging in the area.

The group obtained a 1992 map of the area from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency through a Freedom of Information Act request. According to the map, the underground deposit, which Allen refers to as “the blob,” is now spreading across the bordering streets and under neighborhood yards.

Some members of the community group are frustrated with the way AmerenIP, the Illinois energy utility responsible for cleaning up the site, has handled the situation.

“Ameren just hasn’t provided the information,” Allen said.

Representatives from AmerenIP and the Illinois EPA met with Champaign officials on Nov. 19.

Allen attended the meeting and said Ameren officials claimed they are in contact with the community on a regular basis about the site, and that the contamination cannot move through the soil.

Allen said that Illinois EPA representatives claimed at the meeting that, unless public health is directly affected, there is no urgency to clean up the site because there are no groundwater users in the area.

Calls placed to AmerenIP and the Illinois EPA went unanswered Sunday.

Katie Hapeman, sophomore in LAS, heard about the project through her teacher’s assistant.

She and a few other students interviewed community members and handed out flyers to residents in the neighborhood in the past several months.

“It’s basically an issue of human rights, making sure that everyone gets their fair share,” Hapeman said.

Now, the group is forming a coalition of concerned community members to lobby local and state governments to work toward a thorough clean-up of the site and its toxic elements.

“If the community needs something, it is us, the people, that are going to have to organize,” said Champaign County Health Care Consumers Director Claudia Lennhoff.

The first meeting for the coalition has been scheduled for Jan. 19 at a location to be determined.

“We need to not go away,” Lennhoff said. “That’s where our power is going to come from.”