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PCB Concerns Prompt Special Protection for Mahomet Aquifer

PCB Concerns Prompt Special Protection for Mahomet Aquifer

Worries about the Clinton Landfill's proposal to store hazardous PCB's are fueling a quest for a special federal designation for areas that get drinking water from the Mahomet Aquifer.

The Mahomet Aquifer is the underground water source beneath the Clinton Landfill, and beneath much of central and east central Illinois.

Local officials hope that establishing a "Sole Source Aquifer Area" will stop the Clinton Landfill from taking in hazardous chemicals.

At a recent Urbana City Council meeting, council members were so convinced of the need for the special designation, that Mayor Laurel Prussing and Alderwoman Diane Marlin were surprised that the Illinois-American Water Company would not be joining them. "It is ironic that the water company will not participate," Prussing said."

"Well, it's more than ironic," Marlin replied. "It's irresponsible."

As it turns out, Illinois-American Water is exploring the question through a different route, which we'll get into at the end of this report. The route agreed on by the cities of Urbana, Champaign and Normal plus the U of I is more straightforward. They will share the cost of consultants to study the feasibility of Sole Source Aquifer status, and then ask the federal Environmental Protection Agency to grant it.

The people they will have to convince are at the EPA's Region Five office in Chicago. Bill Spaulding, the Region's Sole Source Aquifer coordinator, will help decide how vital the Mahomet Acquifer is to the communities it serves.

"One of the criteria is that it has to be a sole or principal source of drinking water, and that also they need to convince us that if that source of drinking water became contaminated, that it would be economically infeasible to supply water from an alternative source," Spaulding said.

Areas on the west end of the Mahomet Aquifer can also get drinking water from the Illinois River --- and might be left out of a Sole Source Aquifer area. But Champaign assistant city attorney Joe Hooker, whose city is leading the Sole Source effort, said they believe they can make the case for towns farther to the east.

"Because we've identified at least 88 municipalities in what we're characterizing as the service area that get all of their drinking water from the Mahomet Aquifer," Hooker said. "So, I think that's going to be one of the easier things for us to establish. It might be a little more challenging to establish that there are not economic alternatives, although out sense is that that's the case as well."

If a Sole Source Aquifer Area is announced, federally funded projects in that area would need additional review from the EPA to go ahead. That would affect things like new roads and bridges, although most such projects are approved.

However, Illinois has its own regulations that would kick in as well. Illinois has never had a Sole Source Aquifer area before. Rick Cobb, who is deputy manager of the Illinois EPA's Division of Public Water Supply, hasn't had to enforce them.

Cobb said the rules would make it pretty difficult to open something like the Clinton Landfill over or near the Mahomet Aquifer --- even without permission to store PCB's.

"It reads as if that would be prohibited unless the owner or operator can make a demonstration that between the bottom of the landfill and the top of the aquifer, there's at least a 50 foot thick geologic layer with low permeability," Cobb said.

Cobb added that existing landfills like the one near Clinton would be grandfathered in. He said the state rules don't appear to have an impact on the landfill's proposal to store hazardous PCB's in a new unit, because it would still fall within the facility's current land footprint.

The final decision on the landfill's request to store PCB's remains with the federal EPA, which stated that the matter needs further study.

Hooker said that even if they cannot stop PCB's from coming to the Clinton Landfill, a Sole Source Aquifer designation would be a good thing to have.

"I think the sense of all the parties on this is that regardless of what consequence this has for the Clinton land fill proposal for PCB disposal," Hooker said. "This is a very important step for us to take, moving into the future to adequately protect the aquifer from similar projects."

The Illinois-American Water Company said it is interested in the idea, even if it is not joining the effort right now. The company is a long-time member of the Mahomet Aquifer Consortium, along with other local water companies, water authorities, local governments and interested parties.

The consortium is preparing to launch its own study of Sole Source Aquifer status --- with the stated goal of gathering information that everyone in the region can use in making decisions about the issue.