Against Toxicity and Secrecy: Digging Up the Legacy of the 5th and Hill Site

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Off-site Migration of the “Toxic Blob”

To see the vacant lot at 5th and Hill streets today, you would never know that a coal-to-natural gas plant once stood on the site. You would never know that this plant once dumped thousands of gallons of coal tar—a toxic byproduct of the coal-to-gas process—directly into the ground. And you would never know that even today, coal tar and a related substance known as BTEX still remains under the ground, moving into people’s backyards, and contaminating the groundwater.

To look at the vacant lot at 5th and Hill today, you might think it to be an ideal spot for residential or commercial development. The toxic legacy of the site is invisible. It is effectively buried from sight, both under the ground and in a morass of information that Ameren, the site’s owner, has largely failed to provide to neighborhood residents. To see this toxic legacy for what it is, you have to do some digging.


A photo of the 5th and Hill site from 1953

The toxic legacy of the 5th and Hill site is not news to Ameren, who bought the property from Illinois Power in 1994. Documents possessed by Ameren make this legacy plain. Once upon a time, railroad cars brought coal to the plant on 5th and Hill. At the plant, the coal underwent chemical treatments using benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and, xylene, the components of BTEX. The final product was a clean-burning natural gas, used to heat people’s homes.

However, not all the coal treated at the plant became natural gas. Substances left over from the process—the BTEXladen coal tar—remained on site. Today, prolonged exposure to the chemical components of BTEX has been associated with a number of health problems, including cancer. But such concerns did not exist when the plant was in operation. Plant operators dumped this toxic byproduct directly into the ground. This process was a matter of day-to-day business from 1897 until 1953, when the plant closed.

In the years since 1953, the physical structure of the plant has disappeared. Dismantling of the plant left behind an empty lot, with the exception of a booster house, which stands to this day. Yet, while the plant above ground disappeared, the toxic legacy of the plant below ground remained.

More than 20 years after the plant closed, Illinois Power sold the contaminated site to the Black American Legion in 1979. The Legion planned to develop the site for its members’ benefit, but those plans never materialized. Illinois Power quickly bought the site back after the Legion began doing some digging on the property.

Digging, apparently, was not without some risk. Yet, if this incident had uncovered a problem, that problem was effectively reburied—at least for many years. After the Illinois Power buy-back, the contaminants remained underground and untouched.

The toxic legacy does not end there. A study requested by Illinois Power in 1990 revealed that, over a period of more than 40 years, coal tar and BTEX had spread off the 5th and Hill site. BTEX, in particular, had moved under people’s backyards, and in one case, under the home of residents living on 5th Street.

Following its 1994 buyout of Illinois Power, Ameren began to address some of the toxic contamination at 5th and Hill, removing the sources of onsite contamination in 1997. Still, not all contamination was removed from the site, and the contamination that has spread off-site remains untouched.

As Ameren recognizes, the clean-up in 1997 was not a complete one. The company has proposed an additional clean-up effort to begin in 2009, at an estimated cost of $3.5 to $15 million. The company will seek approval for its plan from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) in 2008.

The effort will address contamination on the 5th and Hill site, and may also address contamination that has spread into the neighborhood. Addressing all contaminated areas has been a demand of neighbors in the months since they learned of the situation.

What remains under the ground at 5th and Hill is only one part of the site’s toxic legacy. An equally consequential part of this legacy is the community relations plan that Ameren, and its predecessor, Illinois Power, have practiced to date

At the onset of its mid-1990s clean-up effort, Ameren promised to send informational materials to the Douglass Branch Public Library, which is centrally located in the North End community. Librarians have no memory of the materials arriving, and the materials have never been found. Ameren representatives claim the librarians misplaced the materials or threw them away. Librarians at the Douglass Branch say that just would not have happened.

According to employees at the Douglass Branch, librarians take special care with materials intended for public information, carefully archiving them and recording their location at the library. Moreover, until November 2007, Ameren had made no effort to verify if the materials had ever reached the library as promised. As of December 8, 2007 the materials had yet to arrive. Ameren also claims to have sent an informational letter to its neighbors in 2004. According to the 12 neighbors contacted for this story, that letter never arrived. Meanwhile, Ameren has released no further information about the spread of toxic contamination off-site to the public.

Ameren does have plans to distribute a fact sheet about the site to nearby residents sometime in January 2008. This effort comes behind the release of a fact-and-action sheet by a local community action group. The group, Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice (CUCPJ), has partnered with nearby residents to gather stories about the site and has also been providing available information to concerned neighbors.

Meanwhile, as Ameren seeks approval from the IEPA, many questions exist in the minds of neighborhood residents. Will $3.5 to $15 million be enough to clean-up their neighborhood? Will Ameren clean up contaminated areas beyond its own property lines? Has the health of the people in the neighborhood been put at risk? Just as importantly, why did Illinois Power, and later Ameren, not do more to make sure that their neighbors knew about this situation?

People living near the 5th and Hill site have not been waiting around for information from Ameren. They have begun doing their own digging for information. They have begun sharing their knowledge of environmental and health problems in the area with one another, and with working groups from CUCPJ and Champaign County Health Care Consumers (CCHCC). People living near the site have not only taken a stand against toxicity and secrecy.

They have also staked out a position for something—power in the community. They have stood up to demand inclusion in the clean-up process. Many have formed a coalition with CUCPJ and CCHCC to make this happen. The coalition wants to receive information about the current extent of contamination in their neighborhood, especially the amount of contamination off-site.

They want more information about the possible links of this contamination to the health problems their friends and family members have experienced over the years. They also want to be informed about what will happen, step-by-step, as Ameren attempts to clean-up the area. More than anything, they want an opportunity to be included in plans related to the clean-up, and plans related to the future of the site after it is cleaned up. They want respect. For the people living near the 5th and Hill site, the digging has only just begun.

5th and Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign Kick-Off
A community meeting about the 5th and Hill site will be held Saturday, January 19, 12–2 p.m. at the Douglass Branch Library, 504 E. Grove St., Champaign.

About C-U Political Action Project

The C-U Political Action Project is Andrew Bloeser, Chuck Allen, Rosemary Thariath, Mariyah Chaudhry, Katie Hapeman, Sunanna Chand, Allison Adams, D’ion Harris, and Sylvia Oglivie. The Project aims to merge political scholarship and community action. Its current work is a partnership with North End residents to address environmental and health-related concerns.
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