Champaign, EPA debate whether Boneyard Creek pipe poses risk

Not far from Boneyard Creek, a decades-old, four-block-long strip of underground pipe is at the center of controversy. Some are calling it a potential environmental and health hazard, while others claim tests are inconclusive in proving it a threat.

Last week, the Champaign County Health Care Consumers presented test results taken by the city of Champaign from this underground pipe, detailing higher than average levels of toxic chemicals gathering within. A week later, both Champaign and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, remain on opposite sides of the argument.

The Champaign County Health Care Consumers, a grassroots nonprofit organization promoting the improvement of health care in the community, continued its plea to the Illinois EPA to launch an investigation on the site, running parallel to and south of railroad tracks near the Hill Street neighborhood. However, they have not heard back from the EPA since a press conference on the pipe last Tuesday, said Grant Antoline, community organizer for the Champaign County Health Care Consumers.

“We still maintain the belief that there is a problem,” Antoline said. “And we believe the EPA should not be ignoring the problem.”

Maggie Carson, Illinois EPA spokeswoman, said the Champaign County Health Care Consumer’s findings are not being ignored; if a serious health and environmental concern were raised from the site, Carson said the EPA would respond immediately. Tests taken by the EPA show no risk, which the Champaign County Health Care Consumers contends.

“At this point, we have no information and no data to show that anyone is being put at risk,” Carson said.

Greg Dunn, manager of the EPA voluntary mediation unit, said he has been down to the site plenty of times since last November. He has taken samples at the site, including extracting samples from three and five feet increments inside the pipe. What he has uncovered, he said, is that the pipe has not been contaminating anything in the recent past.

“The soil that I’ve encountered was very dry,” Dunn said. “You could tell it hasn’t flowed for a very long time.”

He further added that, based on his findings, the Champaign County Health Care Consumer’s claim that the contamination of the pipe comes from the former manufactured gas plant owned by Ameren cannot be proven yet. Carson agreed, adding that there are countless possibilities as to what left coal tar within the pipe, which is more than 150 years old.

“The bottom line is we found nothing in Greg’s investigation that connected it to the Ameren site,” Carson said.

The EPA made it clear they are not ignoring the problem, but believe the ongoing cleanup at the former Ameren plant — located nearby the pipe — is unrelated to this site.

Antoline said he hopes the EPA eventually assures the CCHCC that everything is safe. Many residents are concerned they are being exposed to toxic chemicals. He said they have a right to know either way.

“If tests are negative, that’s fine and it would prove (the Illinois EPA) is doing its job,” Antoline said. “But we need to know if possible health concerns arise.”

Residents’ main concerns right now are whether there have been any chemicals seeping into the soil, said Don Keefer, head of the hydrogeology and geophysics department at the Prairie Research Institute.

He said most people are concerned about exposure in their basements and any excavation projects.

“The real concern is where it all went and whether there is an exposure risk,” Keefer said.

Antoline said if he or Champaign County Health Care Consumers do not hear from the EPA, the organization may have to call on the state attorney general’s office, possibly the governor’s office, to step in and enforce the policy.