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Landfill foes want more say in toxic waste plans

By David Mercer
Associated Press

Construction takes place June 20 at the Clinton Landfill near Clinton, Ill. If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signs off on the idea, a designated part of the Clinton Landfill will become the permanent storage site for heavy concentrations of PCBs from throughout the Great Lakes region, including soil dredged out of Great Lakes harbors and places such as the Fox River in Wisconsin. (AP photos by Seth Perlman)

CLINTON, Ill. (AP) – At an obscure landfill in central Illinois, a plan to store toxic waste is raising a dispute over how much say neighboring towns and counties should have over what gets dumped above the water they drink.

If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signs off, a privately owned landfill just south of Clinton will become the permanent storage site for heavy concentrations of PCBs from throughout the Great Lakes region, toxic remnants of the Midwest’s manufacturing glory days.

The landfill sits over the Mahomet Aquifer, a 150-mile long subterranean mass of saturated sand and gravel that provides drinking water for about three-quarters of a million people in central Illinois. Many of the towns and counties that use it complain they have had no say in the PCBs plan approved by DeWitt County five years ago.

So area lawmakers this year proposed a bill in the General Assembly that would give them more influence. It would grant any county or municipality sitting over an aquifer the chance to block plans to store toxic chemicals anywhere over that aquifer.

Rep. Chapin Rose, a Mahomet Republican who lives over the aquifer, says approving a landfill plan without input from those who drink the water below it is much like taxation without representation.

“It’s a very simple concept that those of us affected by this decision should have a say,” said Rose, who sponsored the bill.

But it isn’t clear whether it would pass legal muster for neighboring local officials to have more direct influence than already granted by the existing EPA review process. Even sponsors expect a court challenge if the legislation passes.

The bill was among pieces of unfinished business when the legislature adjourned its spring session. Sponsors plan to push it again when lawmakers convene in the fall.

The EPA will say only that the permit is under review. In March, the agency delayed issuing a ruling on the landfill, saying it wanted to take another look at the geology below the landfill and how water moves through it after hearing concerns.

Area Disposal, the company that owns the landfill, believes those concerns are overblown. Company attorney Brian Meginnes said the bill and the ongoing opposition are a product of unreasonable distrust in government agencies charged with regulating substances like PCBs.

“If at the end of the day you follow the process and the government authority says ‘Yes, you meet the requirements, here it is,’ I don’t think people should criticize the company or the agency and be unwilling to accept the results of the process,” Meginnes said. “People now go out and Google something and spend an hour and think they’re an expert in something.”

A professor who specializes in environmental law says the bill, even if passed, might not affect the Clinton Landfill since the PCB-storage plan has already moved to federal consideration. But for future projects, she said, it would give local governments “a remarkable amount of say” in what their neighbors can store in a landfill.

“It’s essentially giving every single county touching the aquifer veto power, and every municipality as well,” said Arden Rowell, a law professor at the University of Illinois who called the existing EPA review process quite rigorous. She noted that it includes the agency’s own recommendation that sites like the one proposed at Clinton Landfill not sit above “high-value” groundwater.

Landfill gas burns off and billows from an above ground smoke stack June 20 at the Clinton Landfill.

PCB is short for polychlorinated biphenyl, man-made chemical compounds manufactured in the United States until they were outlawed in 1979. They were used in a wide range of industrial and commercial products: oil-based paints, plastics, rubber, electrical equipment and parts such as switches and fluorescent light ballasts, carbonless copy paper and dozens of others.

The chemicals cause cancer in humans and animals, and can damage immune, reproductive and nervous systems.

Much of the PCB-laden soil the company hopes to store in Clinton would be dredged out of Great Lakes harbors and places like the Fox River in Wisconsin, where paper makers left behind the toxic chemicals in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

Area Disposal already accepts relatively low-level PCBs at the Clinton Landfill, but is likely to run into much heavier concentrations in the materials from those harbors, rivers and other sites, necessitating the approval of the U.S. EPA. Both the state EPA and the DeWitt County board have already agreed.

The 2007 approval from the county board sparked an outcry. Several board members were voted out of office, primarily over the landfill. In a nonbinding referendum in 2008, 75 percent of 4,400 county residents who cast ballots gave a thumbs down to Area Disposal’s plan.

“How exactly can it be a good idea to put this stuff right over an aquifer?” said George Wissmiller, a retired police officer from DeWitt who leads a protest organization known as WATCH Clinton Landfill.

Driving a pickup truck deep into the landfill, manager David Bryant said the combination of three synthetic liners – each about as thick as a credit card – and the natural clay below it make it extremely unlikely PCBs would reach the aquifer 150 feet underneath. “We’re very confident in the liner system,” he said.

But hydro-geologist George Roadcap, who works for the Illinois Water Survey, said what lies in that 150 feet is actually a potential path to the aquifer – pockets of water-saturated sand and gravel. Any escaping PCBs wouldn’t have to go far to reach water, where they could move beyond the ground under the landfill and into the aquifer, he said.

“We think there’s evidence that, yeah, if the aquifer was contaminated, which is a big if, it would go straight toward the Clinton (water) well field,” said Roadcap, who registered his concerns with the EPA.

Meginnes believes landfill companies would have the upper hand in any court challenge. He points to a 1985 federal appellate decision in which the court found that local officials in Louisiana couldn’t write their own law to keep a PCB-handling facility out. Federal law, the court decided, was supreme.

The bottom line, according to Meginnes: “The Midwest needs safe places for this waste to be disposed of. It’s up to the federal government and the EPA to decide if this is a proper place.”

But Wissmiller and others aren’t willing to assume the federal government will do the right thing.

“I’m a retired government employee. I don’t do optimism when it comes to government stuff,” the 63-year-old said. “We need to continue to fight it.”

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