The Cherry Orchard Village apartments lie just south of the abandoned Chanute Air Force Base near Rantoul - and like the base itself, Cherry Orchard has seen better days. Now the two landlords who manage the eight-building complex are charged with failing to maintain it - to the detriment of its tenants, mainly migrant worker families. Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers has been collaborating with the investigative journalism group CU-Citizen Access. He reports on the legal battle to bring Cherry Orchard up to code.
(English language voice over by Jenn Kloc)
(With additional reporting from Pam Dempsey and A. H. Gorton of CU-CitizenAccess)
A dismal ranking of overall health in Vermilion County for the second straight year has prompted a call to action from the county's health department.
Department administrator Shirley Hicks says about 130 people in affected areas have been invited to a meeting Thursday morning at her offices. She notes a lot of the findings in the county's ranking of 98th place out of the state's 102 counties have nothing to do with her department, like unemployment and education levels.
But Hicks says Illinois' fiscal woes will just force her department to work that much harder with social service agencies, primary care providers and others to seek solutions.
"The state of the Illinois economic crisis is a player as part of all of this," said Hicks. "So I think it's going to take all disciplines to look at what part can we do, and how can we best utilize resources that we do have."
Hicks commends the work of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute for putting the findings together. She says the ranking for the county isn't nearly as important as the process researchers used to arrive at that figure.
"Any time you're looking at those reports, you're looking at where did the data come from, how did they ask the questions, so you can better understand the root cause of the problem," said Hicks. "I don't have any dispute with the actual data, it's really trying to dissect it down the the most common denominator and say 'how can we target our initiatives and our resources and pull those together to make an impact."
Hicks commends the work of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute for putting the findings together. Thursday's meeting at the Vermilion County Health Department is expected to include primary care providers, social service agencies, law enforcement, hospitals, and members of the Vermilion County Board.
Trace amounts of radiation from Japan have shown up in Illinois, but state officials say there's no reason for concern.
Minute levels of radioactive materials have been detected in both northern and central Illinois. The state's Emergency Management Agency says radioactive iodine was found in grass clippings in Will County and in an air sample collected at a lab in Springfield.
The materials are believed to be related to the troubled nuclear reactors in Japan, but Illinois' Director Jonathon Monken says the levels are extremely low and present no danger. For example, the air sample is 200,000 times lower than what is allowed for nuclear plant effluent.
Traces of iodine have shown up in other states. In Illinois, the state has stepped up its monitoring of grass, air, milk and eggs in the wake of the Japan crisis.
Both houses of the Indiana Legislature have now approved bills that would restrict access to abortions.
The Indiana House voted 72-23 on Wednesday to require that women seeking an abortion be told that human life begins at conception and ban the procedure after 20 weeks unless the woman's life is in danger.
The bill also requires those seeking abortions to be told in writing that they faced a greater risk of infertility and breast cancer.
Republican Rep. Eric Turner of Cicero says it's the responsibility of lawmakers to protect the unborn and that he hoped the additional requirements would lead to fewer abortions.
The bill now goes to the Senate, which last month approved a bill with many of the same provisions.
A second annual ranking of the overall health of each of Illinois' 102 counties shows a mixed bag of results for East Central Illinois.
The annual report of County Health Rankings serves as a kind of 'check up' on how people in Illinois live, according to 28 different factors. Vermilion County ranked among the worst, finishing 98th, but Piatt County finished 15th, McLean County was 13th, Ford County ranked 11th, and Champaign County finished in 34th place.
The report was put together by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin's Population Health Institute to show counties where they can improve. Julie Willems Van Dijk is an Associate Scientist with the Institute.
"We want to be able to describe those things you can change," she said. "Because you can change your economic environment. You can work to attract new businesses to locate in your community. You can work to support your schools to have higher graduation rates. You can work to make your community more accessible for people who want to walk and bike."
Each report starts with health factors among residents, like the rate of premature death and the number of those in poor physical and mental health. They include social and economic factors like the number of uninsured adults, and the high school graduation rate. It also relies on physical features, like a county's quality of air and access to healthy foods. Van Dijk says the report is also intended to inspire local leaders to help themselves.
"When those leaders get together from different areas, they can talk about what resources are already available in your community, and how they might use them even better than they are now," she said. "Because we all know budgets are tight, and we're living in tough economic times. So it's really important that we use the resources we have to the best of our ability."
The majority of higher-ranking counties are in the north and west, including Jo Daviess, Lake, and McDonough, while the many of the lowest-ranked counties are in the south, including Marion and Alexander counties. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is providing grants for up to 14 communities in the U.S. seeking to improve their overall health.
A national anti-abortion campaign targeting African Americans has arrived in Chicago.
Thirty billboards are going up around the city's South Side. They say: "Every 21 minutes, our next possible leader is aborted." Next to the words is a picture of President Barack Obama.
Stephen Broden is with Life Always, the organization behind the anti-abortion campaign, which launched at 58th and State Street.
"The scourge of abortion has hidden behind political correctness in the black community for too long. The heinous practice is devastating and decimating our community across this nation," Broden said.
Life Always organizers said too many black women have abortions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black women account for 34 percent of abortions. The CDC says black women have the highest abortion rates. White women account for 37 percent of abortions. The Illinois Department of Public Health does not report the racial breakdowns of women who seek abortion.
A dozen black women showed up at the billboard's unveiling, chanting that black mothers have the right to make choices about their bodies. Critics also say the billboards are racist and shame black women.
In a statement, Gaylon Alcaraz, executive director of the Chicago Abortion Fund, said "It's clear those who fight abortion against reproductive choice for women of color know nothing of why women choose abortion. Rather than create fake concern for a community these people have never set foot in, Life Always should spend their energies helping us address the reasons why women decide to choose abortion."
Life Always has been met with controversy since it kicked off its campaign last month in New York City. The group is also targeting Planned Parenthood for offering abortions in black communities. Planned Parenthood officials say fewer than 10 percent of its services are abortion; the other 90 percent are preventative services, including cancer screenings and STD testing/treatment.
The Illinois House wants to lift the ban on smoking at riverboat casinos that border states where smoking is allowed.
The bill passed 62-52 Tuesday. It now goes to the Senate.
Rep. Daniel Burke said he sponsored the measure because Illinois is losing business to states that allow smoking at casinos. The Chicago Democrat claims casinos have lost $800 million since 2008 because gamblers go to Iowa, Indiana or Missouri casinos.
Burke says casinos have improved air filtration systems, reducing the health concerns from smoking.
Supporters of the smoking ban say it's unfair to subject gamblers and casino employees to second-hand smoke.
The Dewitt County Board meets Thursday night at 7 PM to consider public reaction over a measure by the Peoria Disposal Company to store a chemical substance in the Clinton Landfill known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
The Clinton Landfill is owned by Area Disposal of Peoria, and in 2007 the landfill applied for permits with the Illinois and United States Environmental Protection Agency to store the toxins. The state branch of the EPA has already granted the landfill a permit, and U.S. EPA issued a draft permit.
While the U.S. EPA considers granting an official permit, the agency will hear comments on April 13 at Clinton High School about the public's response to putting toxins in the landfill. A report commissioned by the Dewitt County Board finds storing PCBs would present "a significant long-term threat" to groundwater resources in DeWitt County.
The county board may vote to present that information to the EPA during the public hearing next month. But Board Chair Melonie Tilley says that may not happen because of an agreement with Peoria Disposal stating that the board would not take a stance to "oppose or support" issuing a federal permit to the landfill.
That doesn't sit well with DeWitt resident George Wissmiller, who heads the environmental group, WATCH. Wissmiller says he does not want to see toxins stored in the landfill.
"It's going to be separated from the Mahomet Aquifer by three sheets of plastic, three feet of clay, and then an unknown number of feet of soil of unknown composition," Wissmiller explained. "All the studies I've ever seen have said that that protection will eventually fail."
Wissmiller said the DeWitt County Board has stayed neutral on the landfill PCB issue, and that sending the report to the federal EPA hearing would be a notable step for them.
The EPA banned most uses of PCBs in 1979, but they are extraordinarily persistent and can remain in the environment for a long time.
A health care advocates group says the findings of environmental experts from a Boneyard Creek pipeline confirm their fears about contaminants.
Champaign County Health Care Consumers brought in the researchers to investigate the old pipe that extends from the site of a former manufactured gas plant at Champaign's 5th and Hill Streets owned by Ameren. Grant Antoline, an activist with the group, said lab results confirmed there was coal tar in the pipe, and it contained organic compounds like benzene, and hydrocarbons that exceed safety standards.
"We've always been concerned that there's been some sort of dumping into the Boneyard Creek from 3 years ago when we started this campaign," Antoline said. "It's just common practice for these plants to be set up next to a waterway. But to see results of one million, 300-thousand percent higher than they should be is outrageous, and there's no excuse for not investing in the pipe when it's this serious."
Residents in the 5th and Hill neighborhood have long complained over odors in their basements, and nagging health problems. The consumer group's 60-day notice of intent to sue the city of Champaign over cleaning up the pipe will expire April 11th. Its executive director, Claudia Lennhoff, says they simply want the line capped off.
"Their part of the action should be fairly simple and straightforward in terms of the notice of intent to sue," Lennhoff said. "All that we require of them under the Clean Water Act and that notice of intent to sue is to block off the discharge into the Boneyard."
Lennhoff said the city should make Ameren pay for sealing up the pipeline. EPA Spokeswoman Maggie Carson said it is testing results from the Boneyard site have yet to be released, and Champaign city attorney Fred Stavins says the city is waiting on those results, and to find who's responsible for cleaning up the pipe.
In February, the Champaign city council recommended repealing its groundwater ordinance on a case-by-case basis. Stavins said the issue will re-surface by mid-April at the earliest.
An apartment building for people with physical disabilities is planned for downtown Champaign.
Eden Supportive Living plans to build the $15 million building at the corner of State and Park, across from Westside Park. The vacant building currently on the site served as a dormitory for Parkland College students, and before that a hotel. Champaign Deputy City Manager Craig Rost said the new nine story will house about 100 adults, aged 22 to 64.
"A supportive living environment is what they're calling it," Rost said. "It's for people that need some assistance --- and they have a physical handicap that requires some level of assistance. But it doesn't have other kinds of care facilities --- it's really a residential project."
Eden Supportive Living already operates two facilities in the Chicago area, with a third Chicago facility in the works. The Champaign project would be their first one downstate. Eden is buying the site from Robeson's Inc., a real estate firm operated by the family that ran Robeson's Department Store for many years in downtown Champaign. Rost said the location is a good one for Eden Supportive Living.
"It's an exciting project," Rost said. "We don't have very many big projects going on right now. So it's garnered a lot of attention. (Champaign is) a good sit-down town, and I think it'll be good for Eden to have that site."
Robeson's Inc. Chairman Eric Robeson says talks have gone on for some time, but his group took to the idea right away.
"From the very beginning, we loved the sound of the project," said Robeson. "We loved what the vision was and what they were going to do. We thought it was going to be a great reuse for the building. Of course, everything's still potential, and nothing's been finalized, but we're very excited that this building, that our family built back in the early 1970's. It's a great reuse for the building."
Eden officials couldn't be reached for contact Wednesday, but press reports indicate the company plans to raise the building, leaving only the foundation. Robeson says he wasn't aware of those plans.
Rost said the Champaign City Council will be asked to vote this spring on a development agreement to lease out parking for the new building --- but Eden is not asking for any financial assistance from the city. The company hopes to have the project open for residents in spring of 2012.