Community members question groundwater ordinance

When Stephen Hamburg’s father and grandparents started their family dry cleaners business just west of campus in the 1930s, the last thing on their minds was the environmental impact their cleaning chemicals would have on the groundwater.

“What they knew environmentally was very little in the ’30s,” Hamburg said. “No one really knew the how the business could affect it.”

Fast forward to 2011 and the site of the former Garber’s Cleaners, 615 S. Wright St., is one of six businesses in Champaign invoking the city’s groundwater ordinance to right any environmental wrongs caused in the past. However, the ordinance, enacted in 2007, has become a controversial issue for what some residents and organizers describe as a lack of accountability to environmental cleanup on the part of the city and local businesses.

The most controversial issue at hand is the use of the ordinance as a means of minimizing public exposure to contamination. Based on an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency model, the ordinance allows a property site to clean up to meet Illinois EPA standards. Once these steps are completed, the business can then apply for a No Further Remediation letter, which states that the site has met Illinois EPA standards and requires no more cleanup.

The Champaign County Health Care Consumers views the ordinance as taking the easy way out of a much more extensive cleanup. The health care organization was the main proponent of repealing the ordinance at last week’s Champaign City Council meeting, but the council voted against a repeal.

Grant Antoline, a community organizer with the Health Care Consumers, said while he was disappointed with the outcome, it was no setback for the group.

“We’re not going to go away,” Antoline said. “These are all bumps on the road to fixing environmental policies — not just here but in the state.”

Antoline said the state’s environmental agency has not handled Champaign health concerns well. He has sat down with city officials and talked with Illinois EPA representatives in to order to address the concerns his group has but still feels ignored.

“If they say we haven’t given enough information on the issue, I take that to heart,” Antoline said.

He added that if Champaign continues with its groundwater ordinance and the Illinois EPA doesn’t step in, cleanup efforts solely by the businesses will not stop any potential contamination, and perhaps even worsen the situation.

At the cleanup of the former Ameren manufactured gas site in northern Champaign — another campaign the group has spearheaded — Antoline said he fears chemicals such as benzene have already seeped into the ground and, most likely, the water.

Concerns such as these led Hamburg to invest his own money into cleaning up the site for contamination in the early 2000s. The initial phase of cleanup did discover some solvents that were seeping into the groundwater. Cleanup results were then sent to the Illinois EPA in 2008 to verify the contamination and to approve the No Further Remediation letter. The cleanup cost Hamburg hundreds of thousands of dollars and he had to demolish a portion of his business.

Hamburg said he didn’t want to be responsible for future environmental problems and was doing his duty to keep Champaign safe. If it were not for the ordinance, Hamburg said cleanup costs would have been impossible to cover and would have risked further contamination.

“We all want to be responsible citizens,” Hamburg said. “And we all want to do the right thing. I’ve always tried to be very responsible with my actions.”

Both sides of the ordinance debate have presented strong cases, but in the end the ordinance is the best way to protect Champaign’s groundwater, Champaign Mayor Don Gerard said in an interview. Although he may be mildly frustrated with some of the ordinance’s limitations, Gerard said it remains the best way to promote a growing local economy and secure environment.

“We’re paying for the sins of our fathers, and now we have to clean it up,” Gerard said. “Repealing it would have an opposite effect.”