News Local/State

Activists Seek Answers, Action For Neighbors Of Former Gas Plant Site

Sign on the fence surrounding the manufactured gas plant site owned by Ameren in Champaign.

Sign on the fence surrounding the Ameren-owned manufactured gas plant site in Champaign. Jim Meadows/Illinois Public Media

Activists hope a meeting set for Thursday night will attract residents concerned about chemical pollution they believe was not addressed by the cleanup at the site of a long-gone gas plant in Champaign’s predominantly African-American north side.

The 5th and Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign has scheduled the meeting for Thursday, April 25 at 6:30 p.m. at the Champaign Douglass Branch Library, 504 East Grove Street in Champaign. Organizers see the meeting as a chance to reacquaint the neighborhood with the issues, especially residents who have moved to the area since the cleanup was performed.

The 5th and Hill Campaign, organized by Champaign County Health Care Consumers, is concerned about toxic chemicals left behind by a manufactured gas plant that operated on a 3.5-acre site at North 5th and East Hill Streets in Champaign from 1887 to 1953. The facility manufactured gas from coal, leaving behind coal tar and other materials containing toxic chemicals.

Ownership of the gas plant site passed to Ameren, which performed a cleanup of the site under the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s Site Remediation Program.

Ameren did most of the cleanup work from 2009 to 2011, removing soil contaminated with toxic chemicals. Additional coal tar was removed from the west side of the property in 2017. Today, the gas plant site is a grassy vacant lot, which Ameren says it eventually wants to sell for future development by someone else.  For now, a fence surrounding the lot carries signs saying, “No Trespassing; Former Manufactured Gas Plant Site” plus the Ameren logo and a phone number.

Nearby resident Magnolia Cook remembers the huge tent erected at the site to hold in toxic dust and vapors during the cleanup, and the hazmat suits worn to shield the workers.

“So my thing was, OK, if the site is covered and the workers are covered, what about the residents?” said Cook. “You’re not telling us anything.”

Cook’s concern about chemicals from the old gas plant led her to join the 5th and Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign. She spoke at a Tuesday news conference held by the group, flanked by another resident, Jerry “J.B.” Lewis.

Lewis says members of his family have lived in the 5th and Hill area since the mid-1980s. And he said the possible presence of toxic chemicals concerns him because of the wide range of people living in the neighborhood who could be vulnerable.

“We have residents that are young, old,” said Lewis. “We have some that have moved into the area with infirmities, health issues. We have others with small children that are trying to raise families, and some of the elderly that are living in the area.”

The 5th and Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign has campaigned for years for expanding testing for gas plant chemicals to the surrounding neighborhood.

Claudia Lennhoff, 5th and Hill Campaign organizer and executive director of Champaign County Health Care Consumers, said toxins such as benzene have likely spread throughout the neighborhood via groundwater, and could have contaminated soil and sent vapors into homes via basements and crawlspaces.

“The houses are old,” said Lennhoff. “Many of them have basements that are not finished basements. And there has been historically a lot of flooding and a lot of ways for people to have exposure to the contaminants from the manufactured gas plant.”

Ameren says its cleanup of the gas plant site is complete, as is cleanup of two nearby residential properties that the company acquired. After testing at the properties, Ameren is removing contaminants from one of them (507 E. Washington St.) under terms of the Illinois EPA’s Site Remediation Program, but has decided any contamination at the second property (412 Hill St.) is not severe enough to pose a health risk.

Ameren has also detected contaminants underneath 5th Street, where it runs alongside the gas plant site. Removing the contaminants at that location could involve tearing up the street.

But Illinois EPA spokesperson Kim Biggs said in an email that contamination will likely be allowed to remain in place, “as the contamination is.. not expected to migrate further.”

In addition, Biggs said the city of Champaign has passed an ordinance prohibiting the installation of wells for drinking water in the area where off-site testing showed dangerous groundwater contamination.

The 5th and Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign wants monitoring for toxic chemicals from the old gas plant to go farther, into private property in the surrounding neighborhood.

But Ameren is resisting that request, in part because the company says that any toxic chemicals found in the neighborhood may not have come from the gas plant.

Specifically, Ameren spokesman Brian Bretsch said a bus barn and a bulk petroleum facility once operated near the gas plant site, and could have leaked the same chemicals into soil and groundwater that the old gas plant produced.

The company should not be responsible for cleaning up chemicals from those facilities, said Dave Palmer, Ameren manager of remediation projects.

“Our focus is the chemicals for which we are responsible for and are addressing voluntarily,” Palmer said. “In any town, just because there’s impact on the subsurface doesn’t necessarily mean it’s from a source we’re responsible for.”

The 5th and Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign has also complained about a lack of recent data from Ameren’s testing for contaminants at and around the gas plant site. At Tuesday’s news conference, Claudia Lennhoff said the lack of any public data on groundwater test results after 2015 is “unacceptable." Lennhoff said the data is supposed to be posted online, and deposited at the Douglass Branch Library.

Ameren’s Dave Palmer blames the lack of recent data on a change of consultants, and said more recent test data will be released online in the next week.

But Palmer made it clear that Ameren does not consider themselves to be answerable to the 5th and Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign. He said they see the “immediate stakeholders” in the gas plant remediation project as being the city of Champaign and the Illinois EPA. And for now, there are no plans for further environmental cleanup beyond the gas plant site and the Washington Street residential property acquired by Ameren.

“Based on the soil and groundwater data we have today, we don’t see a need at this point for any additional remediation efforts on private property,” Palmer said.