Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - February 09, 2011

Champaign Council Recommends Case-by-Case Review for Groundwater Ordinance

Champaign's City Council has recommended that it consider repealing the city's groundwater ordinance - but on a case by case basis.

A capacity crowd attended Tuesday night's 4-hour meeting and study session, urging the council to force the Illinois EPA and Ameren to conduct a full remediation of the former manufactured gas plant site at 5th and Hill streets, that includes neighboring properties.

Resident Lillian Driver operates a day care out of her home, where evidence of 6 different chemicals was revealed in a recent test.

"Imagine these are your children that I will be watching," Driver said. "You wouldn't allow them to be in this situation. You would take them out. Now that this has been exposed, more than likely, these children I'm attending to, these parents are going to remove these children."

City staff and an EPA official still contend that levels of chemicals like benzene don't pose a health risk. But two environmental experts hired by Champaign County Health Care Consumers say samples taken this week from a Boneyard Creek pipeline prove Ameren hasn't done nearly enough to remediate the gas plant site.

Council member Will Kyles said Ameren appears to have done a good job with its cleanup efforts, but he said tests for chemicals like benzene continually prove otherwise.

"All I know is that as we continue to look into these issues, and continue to dive in and do more tests, we do find more stuff," he said. "Every time we go into meetings, we have homework assignments. And so that creates doubt. And that shows doubt there's doubt in our minds that this clean up is effective."

The City Council is also recommending that staff prepare a statement for the Illinois Pollution Control Board on vapor intrusion standards. Mayor Jerry Schweighart said it will likely require another study session before the groundwater ordinance repeal receives a formal vote.

But the Council's recommendation was not enough to stop a potential lawsuit against the city regarding the discharge of contaminants in Boneyard Creek. Claudia Lennhoff with Champaign County Health Care Consumers has given the city 60 days to treat pollutants flowing from a drainpipe into the creek, or the citizen lawsuit will proceed.

Lennhoff said the city is violating the Clean Water Act by allowing contaminated groundwater from the Ameren gas plant site to seep into that pipe. And said says it may contain coal tar, like another section of pipe she found in Boneyard Creek.

"And any time that water washes over that, it's spreading some of the contamination from the coal tar," Lennhoff said. "It's very important for the city tor respond to this issue, but the city can thank Ameren for this pipe, or the predecessor company, but it is on city property and so the responsiblity is up to the city to get it cleaned up."

But Lennhoff commends the city council's recommendation to consider groundwater ordinance repeals on a case by case basis, saying it will provide more transparency for residents. She said if the ordinance still exists citywide, it will allow the owners of gas stations, dry cleaners, and other businesses to try and avoid cleaning up groundwater contamination.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - February 08, 2011

Wind Turbine Project Headed to UI Board of Trustees

An effort to build a wind turbine on the University of Illinois campus will appear on the Board of Trustees' agenda during its March 23 meeting in Springfield.

The plan calls for a single wind turbine on the university's South Farms site. It was estimated to cost $4.5 million, but last week the university increased that value by $700,000. University spokesman Tom Hardy said a challenge confronting the U of I is finding a way to close that budget gap.

"Still a lot of work to do on this project, not the least of which is how to close a nearly $700,000 funding gap," Hardy said. "In the meantime, the turbine project will be presented for consideration by the full board."

Suhail Barot, the Committee Chair with the Student Sustainability Committee, said he met Tuesday afternoon with U of I President Michael Hogan. Barot said Hogan told him the energy project would move forward.

"He did ask us to look into finding whatever we can do to help cover the budget shortfalls," Barot said. "We will help with it, but we don't know to what degree."

Students at the University of Illinois have been talking about setting up a wind turbine on campus for the last several years. It was originally introduced in 2003 by Students for Environmental Concerns (SECS), who initiated a student fee to support clean energy. By 2008, then-Chancellor Richard Herman canceled the project because of budget concerns.

A $2 million grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation supporting the project needs to be used before it expires at the end of May 2011.

At its meeting next month, the Board of Trustees is expected to vote on a contract with an energy company hired to build the turbine.

Champaign County residents have raised concerns about the project's cost, shadows produced by the turbine throughout the day, and the amount of noise pollution that would be generated.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - February 08, 2011

IL Lawmakers Frustrated over Lack of Budget Information

Senators from both parties are frustrated by a lack of budget information from Gov. Pat Quinn's office.

They pressed for details about Quinn's budget plans during a committee hearing Tuesday. The Democratic governor is scheduled to release his budget proposal next week.

The senators wanted some idea of how much spending would be cut from human services or how Quinn concludes he has cut $3 billion in past years. They were also disappointed that Quinn budget director David Vaught didn't testify at the hearing.

Vaught chief of staff Malcolm Weems said his boss was busy. He also told senators that the governor hasn't finalized his budget proposal.

Despite a major tax increase, Illinois officials probably will have to cut in many areas to stay within new spending caps.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - February 08, 2011

Mattoon Gets Large Federal Grant from Dept of Ag

Mattoon, Ill. is getting a boost from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack said his department is giving the Coles-Moultrie Electric Cooperative in Mattoon a $740,000 loan and a $100,000 grant to provide financing that will be used to renovate and modernize the Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center.

"Strengthening the hospital will make it easier for economic development officials in Illinois to be able to attract business and industry to that area because they know that workers who may get injured or family members who need hospital care will be able to get hospital care," Vilsack said.

Vilsack said it is important to prevent residents from having to travel long distances to get the care they need. He added that the Mattoon project will create 17 new jobs and retain more than 1,600 by preventing hospital closure.

Vilsack said a nationwide package supporting sixteen rural development projects in ten states will leverage 15 private dollars for every public dollar spent.

Categories: Business, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - February 08, 2011

Following Tax Hike, Budget Remains Priority for Ill. General Assembly

The income tax increase that took effect at the start of 2011 will give state legislators some buffer.

With a new General Assembly getting to work on Tuesday, the budget will be front and center. Democrats still hold a sizable majority, but Republicans gained enough seats that there must be at least some GOP support in both chambers for borrowing and other measures to pass.

The new makeup of the legislature could put a wrinkle in Democrats' efforts to erase the state's backlog of bills. Illinois' budget was so thin, the state has held off paying social service organizations, schools, and businesses with state contracts.

Democrats want to leverage the incoming revenue from the tax hike to borrow more than $8 billion to immediately make those vendors whole, but first they will have to convince Republicans ... who say they are withholding support until there are spending cuts and other changes.

Besides borrowing, a revamp of the workers' compensation system and reductions in current state employees' pension plans could be major topics this year at the capitol.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - February 08, 2011

Job Openings Fall for Second Straight Month

Employers posted fewer job openings in December, the second straight month of declines. That's a sign hiring is still weak even as the economy is gaining strength.

The Labor Department said Tuesday that employers advertised nearly 3.1 million jobs that month, a drop of almost 140,000 from November. That's the lowest total since September.

Openings have risen by more than 700,000 since they bottomed out in July 2009, one month after the recession ended. That's an increase of 31 percent.

But they are still far below the 4.4 million available jobs that were advertised in December 2007, when the recession began.

The figures follow a mixed jobs report released last week, which showed the unemployment rate fell sharply to 9 percent in January from 9.4 percent the previous month. But it also found that employers added a net total of only 36,000 jobs, far below what's needed to consistently reduce unemployment.

There are far more unemployed people than there are job openings. Nearly 14.5 million people were out of work in December. As a result, on average there were 4.7 people competing for each available job. That's below the ratio of 6.3, reached in November 2009, the highest since the department began tracking job openings in 2000.

But in a healthy economy, the ratio would fall to roughly 2, economists say.

The department's report, known as the Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, or JOLTS, counts number of jobs advertised on the last business day of the month. The figures are for December, but economists say the report provides an indication of future hiring patterns because it can take several months to fill many jobs.

Job openings dropped sharply in professional and business services, a category that includes temporary help agencies. They also fell in construction, manufacturing, and in education and health services.

Job openings rose in trade, transportation and utilities, and in retail.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - February 08, 2011

Indiana Gay Marriage Amendment Clears Hurdle

Republican lawmakers in Indiana are determined not to fail this time around in pushing for a state constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage and civil unions.

On Monday, a Republican-controlled House committee approved the amendment requirement by a 8-4 vote along party lines. It now moves to the full Indiana House and then the Senate, both of which are controlled by Republicans.

But Republicans were not the amendment's only supporters.

Democratic backers include state Rep. David Cheatham, who hails from the 69th district in southeast Indiana. He co-sponsored the measure.

"Since we have a state law already, why do we need to have this part of the constitution?" Cheatham, of North Vernon, asked. "My view on that is this: We have laws that deal with situations. We have a constitution that deals with foundation issues; fundamental issues. This is a foundation, fundamental issue. Marriage between one man and one woman."

The House committee also heard from critics who provided emotional testimony. They included Jessica Wilch, president of Indiana Equality of Indianapolis.

"There's a force in this state that is determined to undermine the rights of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. Those rights affect domestic-partner benefits to hospital visitation," Wilch said. "And now there seems to be a significant effort to change the constitution of this state to question whether the LGBT community should even reside here."

This is the second time Republicans have taken on such an amendment.

In 2005, as now, the Indiana House and Senate were controlled by Republicans. The party got a similar amendment through both chambers, but under Indiana law, amendments must pass through the legislature twice. By 2006, Democrats took control of the legislature, and the amendment stalled once Republicans were out of power.

If the GOP prevails in back-to-back legislative cycles this time around, the measure would still face hurdles. For one, it would have to win support in a state-wide referendum. Most constitutional amendments in Indiana take years to pass.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - February 08, 2011

Blagojevich Claims Conversation Record ‘Missing

Attorneys for Rod Blagojevich filed a pretrial motion Tuesday seeking what they claimed was missing evidence in the impeached Illinois governor's corruption trial, including records of a phone call between a Blagojevich aide and then White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

The motion claims the telephone conversation took place just a day before Blagojevich's December 2008 arrest on charges that include allegations he sought to sell or trade the appointment to President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat for personal gain. The motion says details of that conversation could bolster a defense contention that Emanuel, who has not been accused of any wrongdoing, was willing to help with a political deal in which Blagojevich would have named Illinois' attorney general to the seat.

But the call between Emanuel and then Blagojevich chief of staff John Harris is not among hundreds of transcripts of secret FBI wiretaps recorded before Blagojevich's arrest. The defense motion points only to circumstantial evidence that it even happened, including a reference in a White House transition-team report from after the arrest that said Emanuel had "about four" conversations with Harris. The defense was given records of only three conversations, according to the motion.

"The fourth and final phone call is the call that is mysteriously missing," it adds. "Piecing together multiple documents after the first trial, Blagojevich uncovered the fact that the December 8th phone call ... took place."

A message seeking comment left on a voice mail overnight at the U.S. attorney's office wasn't immediately returned.

Blagojevich faces 23 charges at his April retrial, after jurors at his first trial last year agreed only on one of 24 counts and convicted him of lying to the FBI. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys have been ordered to file all pretrial motions by next week.

The defense's latest filing comes just two weeks before Chicago's mayoral election. Emanuel has a considerable fundraising advantage and leads in polls in the race to replace retiring Mayor Richard Daley.

Emanuel has said little about the Blagojevich case publicly, often citing the ongoing legal proceedings for not commenting in detail. The White House report released in 2008 by the then president-elect's office concluded neither Emanuel not anyone else on Obama's staff had had any "inappropriate discussions" with Blagojevich or his aides.

It found that Emanuel had had "one or two telephone calls" with Blagojevich and "about four" with Harris, who testified for the government at Blagojevich's first trial. Tuesday's motion also goes out of its way to say the defense isn't accusing Emanuel of doing anything untoward.

"Blagojevich makes absolutely no assertion that Rahm Emanuel was ever involved in, or aware of, any wrongdoing, criminal or otherwise," it says.

Still, the motion's focus suggests the ousted governor's attorneys could make Emanuel a part of their defense strategy, which could cause him some political discomfort. He did not testify at the first trial, though both prosecutors and the defense have left open the possibility he could be called at the second trial.

A voice message left overnight for Emanuel campaign spokesman Ben Labolt was not immediately returned.

In their motion, defense attorneys contend details of final conversation they say took place between Emanuel and Harris would support Blagojevich's claim that he merely hoped to forge a deal in which he would name Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to the Senate seat in exchange for her father, powerful Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, pushing a legislative package favored by the governor.

Prosecutors have portrayed the supposed Madigan deal as a red herring designed to obscure multiple bids by Blagojevich to effectively sell the seat not for the benefit of his Illinois constituents, but for his own personal gain. About half of the pages in Tuesday's defense motion are blacked out, including names and excerpts from wiretap recording transcripts that federal Judge James Zagel has ruled aren't pertinent to the case and should remain under seal.

(Photo courtesy of feastoffun.com/flickr)


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - February 08, 2011

Champaign Unit 4 Continues Discussion on Replacing Central HS

The Champaign Unit 4 School District is mulling over the idea of building a new school to relieve overcrowding at Central High School.

The school board held the fourth public meeting Monday night to discuss the project, this time including board members of the Champaign City Council and the city's park district.

Seven sites are being considered to house the new school. Four of the sites are near the north end of Prospect Avenue, two are west of First Street and south of Windsor Avenue, and one is west of I-57 in Northwest Champaign. Each location is roughly 60- to 80-acres. Lynn Stuckey, a parent of a Central High School student, said wherever a new school is built, location is key.

"Frankly, I'm not in favor of a new high school given the locations that I've seen," Stuckey said. "I live four blocks away from Central High School. I like the location, and I think we can do more to keep our school in the middle of our community."

School board President Dave Tomlinson said the seven sites are being reviewed based on population growth and proximity to public transportation. Tomlinson added that the board is still gathering input from the community, and has not made a final decision on how it will proceed.

"We need more people to give us input...because we're not going to make the best decision we can unless we have the right input," Tomlinson said.

If a new school is built, voters would have to approve a tax referendum of at least $50 million to begin construction.

Feedback about the project can be e-mailed to CentralComments@ChampaignSchools.org

Categories: Education, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - February 07, 2011

Experts Say New Findings Prove Contaminants Remain in Neighborhood of Old Gas Plant

Further tests from two environmental experts confirm that contaminants remain in the soil near the site of a former manufactured gas plant in Champaign.

Residents of the 5th and Hill neighborhood say evidence uncovered Monday from an old pipeline at Boneyard Creek proves that Ameren has failed to properly address the remnants of the site. The residents say if the city repealed its Groundwater Restriction Ordinance, it would force Illinois' EPA to require the utility company to do the necessary groundwater extraction. Environmental investigator Bob Bowcock said when he told the agency about the pipeline, the EPA chose to ignore it.

"They had conducted an environmental investigation," he said. "They said there was no evidence of a pipeline, they denied its existence, and basically said they wanted nothing further to do with environmentally investigating it. We call on the Illinois EPA to do the right thing, to conduct a proper environmental investigation, and get their butts out there and do the job right, and do it now."

Members of Champaign County Health Care Consumers say the groundwater ordinance offers no protections for human health or the environment, and only protects corporations by exempting them from the costs of cleaning up the pollution for which they're responsible. Bowcock said vapors from chemicals like benzene are exposing residents to levels that can cause blood-borne cancers.

5th and Hill neighborhood resident Magnolia Cook said she was hopeful as Ameren started its cleanup on the former plant site, but her opinion changed quickly.

"I was outraged and heartbroken when I learned that Ameren is planning to leave the toxic groundwater in place in this neighborhood - a site surrounded by a day care, woman's shelter, and people's homes," Cook said. "This is not a toxic site miles away from anything surrounded by cornfields. This is a site with toxic chemicals in the soil and groundwater in a residential neighborhood."

If the city of Champaign doesn't repeal the groundwater ordinance, Bowcock said lawsuits against Ameren are likely. He said the utility did the bare minimum of cleanup by only removing soil on its own property. Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris said the gas plant site is in line with Illinois EPA standards, and does not pose a threat to human health or safety. Morris also said there is no evidence of a pipeline coming into the old gas plant site, and that the utility's remediation of the gas plant site will be completed next year.

The Champaign City Council will discuss the groundwater ordinance in Tuesday's study session, which begins at 7 p.m.

(Photo by Jeff Bossert/WILL)


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