Toxic site of former CU gas plant to begin testing

By Melissa Silverberg

Ameren Illinois Power will begin soil and groundwater testing this week on the area surrounding the former gas plant at Fifth and Hill streets in Champaign.

The site of the plant has been the source of controversy due to the contamination left behind by Ameren which has yet to be cleaned up.

“The purpose of the off-site testing is to find the outer limits of contamination,” said Leigh Morris, spokesperson for AmerenIP. “This is very typical of what we do at all of our former MGP (manufactured gas plant) sites.”

The gas plant has been out of use for more than 80 years. However, residues of coal tar, benzene and other chemicals have been left at the site, according to previous tests done by Ameren.

Neighbors of the area expressed concerns about the possible spread of the contamination at the latest meeting of the Fifth and Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign, which was held Saturday at the Douglas Branch Library in Champaign.

The campaign is a coalition of the Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice, Champaign County Health Care Consumers, the Champaign-Urbana Political Action Project, the University Department of Urban and Regional planning and several neighborhood residents.

Since their last meeting in January, the organization has been working on understanding the reports in the library by Ameren detailing the site and trying to get the voices of the neighborhood heard, said Aaron Ammons of CU Citizens for Peace and Justice.

Although “No Trespassing” signs have recently been put up on the site by Ameren, the Fifth and Hill campaign is calling for signs explaining the danger and contamination of the site.

“It’s almost a slap in the face,” Ammons said.

“They may feel there is no immediate danger, but they know it’s toxic and they need to acknowledge that.”

Ameren has maintained that the residents of the Fifth and Hill area are in no immediate danger. Morris said the company had no knowledge of the neighborhood campaign meeting and said they did not receive an invitation to attend.

Residents of the Fifth and Hill neighborhood addressed the meeting discussing their concerns and hopes for further remediation and cleaning of the site.

Eileen Oldham has lived in the property behind the former gas plant site her entire life with her whole family.

Oldham and her four sisters have all suffered from fibroid tumors and had hysterectomies.

One of the issues connected with living near the chemicals reportedly on the Fifth and Hill site is female reproductive problems, said Andy Bloeser of the CU Political Action Project.

“I’d like to see them (Ameren) clean the site up and turn it into something for the community,” Oldham said.

Oldham also reported trees in her yard dying and a strange smell that she said she was never able to figure out.

Her whole family does not drink the tap water. She has not let her children play in the yard or the site, which looks like a regular, large open field.

Once testing of off-site locations is completed and the perimeter of the contamination is determined, the remediation process, which is a collaboration of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and AmerenIP, will continue, Morris said.

“We want to continue to highlight the issue and keep the public’s attention,” Ammons said.

“We are in support of the testing; we need to get a proper width of the area. It’s a step in the right direction.”