Peoria Citizens Score Public Health Victory –And Call for Our Help

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When my family moved to Peoria from Urbana
more than 8 years ago, we suffered some culture
shock. We’d left a fairly progressive community
and a wide circle of activist friends to move to a
city where the culture was much more conservative
and definitely more passive; the first
demonstration we saw covered on Peoria television
was a group of people rallying to get a
Hooter’s on the riverfront. But where Urbana’s
physical charms are subtle, Peoria’s geological
variety was a pleasant change.
That fall I would often find myself driving on
the western edge of town on a two-lane road that
descends from the neighborhoods in the hills lining
the Illinois River, toward the cornfields
beyond. The hills, the trees in their autumn colors,
the blue sky over the cornfields all helped compensate
a bit for what we’d left behind. To w a r d
the bottomof the hill, an access road threads back
uphill, marked by a sign reading “Environmental
Management Services.” In my bucolic daze I
thought of recycling and other green things.
Who knew that the facility hidden at the end
of that access road, behind that ludicrously
euphemistic sign, was actually a hazardous
waste landfill? As it turns out, almost nobody.
Peoria Disposal Company’s No.1 landfill has
accepted millions of tons of hazardous waste at
this facility since the 1970s, and most Peorians
would have remained ignorant of this situation
had the landfill not approached capacity. With
closure looming within in a few years, Peoria
Disposal Company (PDC) began the process of
applying to expand the landfill by over 8 acres
and 45 vertical feet, which would allow dumping
to continue for another 15 years.
The first to raise the alarm, a year or more
ago, were groups like Heart of Illinois Sierra
Club and River Rescue. Still, the news didn’t
seem to travel much beyond those who were
already active in environmental efforts–a pretty
small community. But when PDC filed its application
in late 2005 and made the requisite public
notification (a tiny display ad in the Peoria
Journal Star), the cat was out of the bag and
public opposition quickly gathered momentum.
When people started asking questions about
what was being dumped on the edge of town,
what they learned literally frightened them into
action. Under its current permit, PDC No.1
accepts primarily waste containing heavy metals
like lead, mercury, cadmium and chromium. It
also accepts Manufactured Gas Plant (MGP)
remediation wastes: soil removed from the former
sites of plants that produced fuel gas from
coal. A partial list of the
toxic materials often
found in these soils
includes volatile and
semivolatile org a n i c
compounds (VOCs and
SVOCs), benzene,
polynuclear aromatic
hydrocarbons (PA H s ) ,
and metals like arsenic,
chromium, lead, copper,
nickel and zinc. PDC is
licensed to accept some
wastes that it currently
does not (such as PCBs);
PDC alone decides what waste to accept. The
substances being dumped at PDC No.1 have
been associated with cancer, birth defects, and
mental retardation, to name just a few of the
possible health hazards.
H o w e v e r, this site has been operating since at
least the 1970s, well before current regulations
were put into place. It’s not entirely clear what
might be buried in the older parts of the landfill.
Of particular concern is the “barrel trench,”
where in the 1970s steel drums containing various
solid and liquid hazardous materials were
buried with only a non-compacted clay “liner”.
In 1983, an EPA report noted “contaminants
found puddled on soil from leaking drums.”
While there are enough concerns about this
landfill to fill a day-long seminar, possibly the
most serious and obvious problem – and one relevant
to Urbana-Champaign residents – is that it
sits on top of the Sankoty Aquifer. Landfill
defenders have made a great deal of noise about
the fact that the landfill sits above the Shelbyville
Outwash, not the Sankoty itself. The
Shelbyville Outwash is a finger, if you will, on
the hand of the Sankoty Aquifer. PDC No.1 sits
right at the knuckle where they join–upstream.
To suggest that the landfill does not endanger
the Sankoty is a bit like saying if we dump
something into the Mississippi at New Orleans,
it won’t get into the Gulf.
The Sankoty Aquifer underlies 750 square
miles of Illinois. It furnishes drinking water to
264,000 people in 39 communities in the tricounty
area alone (Peoria,
Tazewell, and Wo o d f o r d
counties). But the Sankoty
is not a discrete entity. It is
hydraulically connected,
and mixes water, with the
Mahomet A q u i f e r.
Urbana-Champaign draws
water from the Mahomet.
PDC claims that we
don’t have to worry about
groundwater contamination
because the liner system
will last for 500
years. Even if that were
true, heavy metals last forever–they do not
degrade–and I daresay they will be as poisonous
to people in 2506 as they are now. The truth is,
all landfills leak. Liner systems consist of compacted
clay (which is permeable) and
HDPE–plastic–sheeting. The plastic sheeting is
permeable even when intact; liners have pinholes
in them when they are installed; and they
all degrade and crack eventually. Landfills a lot
younger than 500 years are already leaking. In
fact, evidence suggests that PDC No.1 is already
leaking. PDC’s assurances regarding their liner
system don’t hold water, let alone toxic waste.
There are other issues of concern to people
outside of Peoria County. Consider the fact that
only around 10% of the waste comes from Peoria
County. Most of it comes from out of state,
including Indiana and Ohio, and comes to Peoria
in trucks over the highways. One could reasonably
assume that hazardous materials are
being trucked down I-74 to Peoria, and spills
can happen anywhere.
As long as landfilling hazardous waste is
cheap and convenient, industry will continue to
produce it. Stopping the expansion of PDC No.1
will reduce the options available to producers of
toxic waste, making the development of alternative
processes more attractive. Clearly, the continued
operation of PDC’s hazardous waste
landfill endangers more than just Peoria residents;
stopping the expansion and closing the
landfill will benefit us all.
Thanks to a grassroots movement the likes of
which many longtime Peoria residents say they
have never seen – petition, yard sign and billboard
campaigns, door-to-door canvassing, letters
to the local paper and untold numbers of
phone calls, emails and old-fashioned letters to
County Board members organized by the local
Sierra Club, River Rescue, Citizens for our
Environment and Peoria Families Against Toxic
Waste – on May 3 the Peoria County Board
voted 12-6 to deny PDC’s expansion request.
We have cleared one major hurdle, but our
work has just begun. We now have to muster our
resources – physical, psychic, and financial – to
oppose PDC’s almost certain appeal of the
board’s decision to the Illinois Pollution Control
Board. In any case, millions of tons of hazardous
waste still sit above our aquifer, within 3
miles of 53,000 residents and directly upwind of
some of the most densely populated neighborhoods
in Peoria. Our task now is to do what is
necessary to protect not just our community but
others across central Illinois.
You may feel removed from this problem,
but truly we are all connected. The Illinois EPA
needs to know how far the effects of this decision
extend, and how great is the good – or the
harm – they have the opportunity to do. Please
contact Director Douglas P. Scott of the Illinois
EPA at PO Box 19276, Springfield, IL 62794 or
call 217/782-3397 and let him know that PDC
No. 1 needs to be cleaned up, not expanded.
Visit to get the latest
information and find out how to help.

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