greenobserver.net facebook.com/thegreenobserver twitter.com/greenobserverCU instagram.com/thegreenobserver
Made possbile by:
Dedicated to all 5th and Hill residents.
Thank you for your unwavering zeal and tireless commitment to 5th and Hill.
Staff Ana Mendoza
Editor in Chief
Copy Editing Chair
Authors and Artists Khiren Johnson Nico Vassilakis Carlin Hastings Andy Eltzroth
Table of Contents 3-6
5th and Hill: An Overview
5th and Hill: A Pernicious Legacy
Why Should We Care About 5th and Hill?
Coal Tar Contamination Throughout Illinois
5th & Hill: Timeline
Food for Thought: Socioeconomic Background, Food Privilege, and Environmental Activism
5th & Hill: The Faces of Those Affected
Other Ongoing Campaigns
5th and Hill: An Overview by Noah Simon
At the intersection of Fifth and Hill in Champaign sits a 3.5 acre lot: a former manufactured gas plant site owned by Ameren Illinois. From the 1880s until its closure in 1953, the plant produced and processed methane gas by burning coal, a process that resulted in a slew of hazardous byproducts. Throughout its operation, the siteâ€™s hazardous chemicals have leached into the groundwater. These hazardous chemicals stem, in part, from a five block-long pipe that was part of the old gas plant. The pipe was responsible for discharging hazardous coal tar into Boneyard Creek which flows through the northern part of campus. Both coal tar and coal tar pitch, which is a thick black liquid that remains after coal tar distillation, are known carcinogens.
When the Illinois EPA was asked to conduct an investigation, they claimed there was no evidence of a toxic pipe. Not satisfied with the results, the Champaign County Health Care Consumers conducted the investigation themselves. In 2011, Champaign County excavated and plugged the toxic pipe that drained into Boneyard Creek because of CCHCC test results from 2010 that indicated elevated levels of nine semi-volatile and one volatile organic compounds. Benzoate pyrene was found
Figure 1 - Boundaries of the initial gas plant (black) and the affected neighborhood (red) according to director of CCHCC.
to be more than 14,000 times higher than levels that are considered safe. Long term exposure to benzoate pyrene (i.e. Benzo(a)pyrene) has been shown to cause cancer of the lung, kidney, and skin. In 2013, Ameren excavated the soil to remove the chemical contaminants that escaped into the surrounding soil. However, Ameren only cleaned up the area that is defined by the property lines of the former gas plant. Thus, residents are worried that the chemicals spread through the groundwater and well beyond the original property lines. The migration of chemicals via groundwater may be a relatively slow process of several feet per year, but since the chemicals have had more than 100 years to travel, they could be impacting residents well into the surrounding neighborhood. These chemicals can then be released from the groundwater into the air in the form of vapors. The
three most dangerous toxins from both a health and transmission standpoint are benzene, naphthalene, and ethylbenzene. The people in the community have reported increased incidences of rare and aggressive forms of cancer, respiratory issues, female reproductive tract health issues, and frequent numbness and tingling in their hands and feet. They are worried that these aforementioned chemicals â€” which can persist for thousands of years in the environment â€” will have long lasting impacts on their community for generations. This is a concern because homes and daycares are positioned right up to the fence enclosing the toxic site. So far, the Fifth and Hill campaign, a joint effort between residents and the CCHCC that began in 2007, has educated residents, exposed the existence of a toxic pipe that used to dump coal tar into Boneyard Creek, and
engaged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to test residentsâ€™ homes for harmful indoor vapors. They are still fighting for offsite cleanup (beyond the original property lines of the Ameren plant), a more comprehensive groundwater contamination investigation and subsequent cleanup, as well as an investigation and cleanup of the five-block toxic pipe that runs through the neighborhood surrounding 5th and Hill. Despite the successes of the Fifth and Hill campaign, there is still a lingering concern regarding hazardous vapors that are likely evaporating from the groundwater and into the surrounding air. These invisible vapors are the current target for the campaign. The EPA has been engaged, once again, to test indoor air within residents homes for toxins. The campaign also holds Ameren responsible to return to the neighborhood and continue the clean up, started in 2013, beyond the property lines of the site. Below is a Google Maps image outlining both the original site (black) and the boundary of the affected neighborhood (red), according to the executive director of the CCHCC (Figure 1). The people will continue fighting until these lingering contaminants are dealt with.
5th & Hill: A Pernicious Legacy by Sayani Majumdar Manufactured gas plants were a fixture in many towns and cities across the United States from the early 19th till the mid-20th century. Coal and oil were burned to produce a gaseous fuel for use in lighting, heating, and cooking. Wastes generated as part of regular operation of these plants were routinely discharged into nearby waterways, dumped into landfills or stored on-site in open pits. Most of the manufactured gas plants (MGP) ceased operation by the 1960s as cheaper and cleaner natural gas became widely available.
In the last few decades, the sites of the former MGPs are again hogging the spotlight amid growing concerns about the hazards posed by residual contamination on-site. One such site is located at 308 N. Fifth Street, approximately three blocks from the present northern boundary of the University of Illinois campus. An MGP operated on this site from 1869 to 1932, eventually shutting down in 1953. The site, more commonly known as Fifth and Hill, has been the focal point for a number of grassroots campaigns calling for thorough remediation and cleanup and greater transparency in communicating health hazards to the residents.
The conversion of coal into gas generated an enormous amount of waste in the form of coal tar and spent effluents. Gas production involved heating the coal or oil in an oxygenpoor atmosphere to separate the volatile matter from the solid fraction, which was predominantly coke. The gaseous mixture was cooled in several stages to condense out liquid impurities as tar, a thick, oily mixture of aromatic
“Exposure to [VOCs] over long time have been linked to damage to the nervous system, hearing loss, birth defects, and cancer.” hydrocarbons and the primary waste product of MGPs. The remaining impurities in the gases e.g. ammonia, sulfur compounds, cyanides and heavy metals were removed by direct contact with water — in devices called scrubbers — and by passing through beds of lime, wood chips and iron oxides. The effluents from these washing and purification stages were another major
waste product and were often mixed with tar before on-site storage or offsite disposal. Tar contained a slew of compounds, many of which are now recognized as environmental and health hazards by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Some of the hazardous chemicals present in tar include volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heavy metals and cyanide. Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene â€” known together as BTEX â€” are the best-known examples of VOCs in tar. As the name suggests, these chemicals have a strong propensity to escape into vapor, making them prime candidates for air-borne contaminants in nearby residences. They are also likely to infiltrate groundwater because of their high solubility in water. Exposure to these chemicals over long time have been linked to damage to the nervous system, hearing loss, birth defects, and cancer. PAHs, the other major class of compounds encountered in tar, are no less toxic in their effects on human health. Being extremely resistant to natural breakdown in the environment, these chemicals constitute long-term exposure hazards. Several of the PAHs are classified as potential carcinogens by the International Agency of Cancer Research. In 2004, the first comprehensive investigation of the site near Fifth and Hill identified many of these chemicals in the soil and groundwater on-site (see inset). As many as 20 MGP-
related chemicals, including benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, cyanide and lead, were present in groundwater samples at concentrations exceeding EPA-stipulated limits for these compounds in drinking water. Soil samples from the site were also contaminated with several toxic chemicals at levels that are deemed unsafe for residential properties by the EPA. Off-site studies painted a similar dire picture of contamination, showing unsafe levels of benzene, ethylbenzene, naphthalene, and cyanides in one or more groundwater samples from wells installed outside the known periphery of the plant. Possibly as a result of being exposed to these carcinogenic pollutants, many residents in the 5th and Hill community have contracted and succumbed to different forms of cancer over the years. Although evidence of sub-surface and groundwater contamination at the location of the MGP had begun to accumulate since 1990, efforts to remove contaminated material and restore the site only began in 1997, more than a decade after the discovery of below-grade structures from the MGP era in the first detailed inspection of the site (1986). Soil contamination on the site has been mitigated to some extent by excavation of contaminated top-soil (1997) and treatment of deeper layers with injected oxidants to induce breakdown of the pollutants (2013), but no attempts have been made to address the contamination present in the groundwater or prevent pollutants in the soil from leaching into the groundwater. Moreover, a new ordinance on groundwater regulations signed into
effect by the City of Champaign in 2007 has nixed the liability of companies to remove contaminants from groundwater as long as it is not being used as a source of drinking water. Ameren has cited this “institutional control” to avoid undertaking thorough clean-up of the polluted groundwater found in the vicinity of the site. The company’s representatives argue that the residual contamination within the soil and groundwater is below levels considered hazardous for consumption or at depths below 10ft and therefore poses little to no risk to the residents. Contrary to these claims, accumulating evidence in the scientific literature suggests that residents in the neighborhood can be exposed to sub-surface contamination by a phenomenon called “vapor intrusion” in which the more volatile compounds in groundwater and sub-surface soils find their way into residences through cracks in the foundation or basement walls, or through open utility lines (see infographic).
locations throughout the neighborhood have indicated changes in groundwater gradients over time. Aside from the proven mobility of some of the lighter and more water-soluble compounds through groundwater, regulations governing the disposal of industrial waste were virtually non-existent in the era that MGPs operated and flourished, allowing the factories to dump their wastes with impunity. Boneyard Creek received tons of waste during the years that the Champaign MGP was in operation, with a waste pipe draining directly into the waterway north of Washington Street. Flooding of the creek, which occurred often, left residences in the vicinity awash in tarassociated impurities. Tar-like odors would persist for days afterward, leaving residents vulnerable to the numerous health hazards associated with inhaling these toxins. Expanding the definition of “off-site” to include neighborhoods suffering from the effects of indiscriminate waste-handling practices of the MGP industry and the unpredictable gradients of groundwater which can transport the chemicals tens of feet away from the source in a few decades, would be one step toward redressing this problem.
“Several PAHs are classified as potential carcinogens by the Internativonal Agency of Cancer Research.”
Past remediation efforts have concentrated solely on the location of the former gas plant and adjoining streets and intersections despite off-site investigations indicating that the residual impact of MGP-related contamination likely extends well beyond the 5th and Hill neighborhood. Testing for the hazardous chemicals in groundwater withdrawn from wells installed at several
Chemicals like VOCs, and semi-volatile organic compounds like naphthalene can migrate from deeper soil layers into the basement or crawl spaces of buildings through cracks in the foundation or open utility lines buried underground.
References: www.ameren.com/illinois/company/community/champaign-mgp-information www.hatheway.net/02_enviro_threat.htm U.S. EPA. Provisional Guidance for Quantitative Risk Assessment of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development; Washington, DC, 1993 (EPA 600-R-93-C89) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Interaction Profile for: Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene, and Xylenes (BTEX). Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Atlanta, GA, 2004
Why Should We Care About by Khiren Johnson Many feel disheartened by the fact that, despite known levels of toxicity in Flint, Michigan, the identified problem has not caused intervention by government entities whose job is to protect residents. But simultaneously many overlook the fact that the poisoned drinking water in Flint is just one case of a much larger national and ultimately, global environmental racism issue. Environmental Racism is defined as racial discrimination in environmental policymaking as well as the enforcement of regulations and laws, whether intentional or not. Often, speculation is generated around the intentions of policy makers whoâ€™ve made decisions that have led to the poisoning of children, pregnant women, and entire communities. However, itâ€™s important that we recognize environmental racism by the consequences of policy making and enforcement because whether the intention of policymakers are good or bad, the implications on predominantly colored peopleâ€™s lives are real and deadly.
The Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty study reviewed data collected over a 20 year time period and found that more than half (56 percent) of the people who live within a 1.86 mile radius of toxic waste facilities in the United States are people of color. According
t 5th & Hill? to Quartz, Black Americans are 3 times more likely to die from pollution. The Quartz article emphasizes that Black communities arenâ€™t being poisoned by chance, it is rather the result of decades of indifference from people in power. Despite the countless number of scholarly studies pertaining to the overwhelming burden of toxicity in communities of color, 95 percent of people of color have had their civil rights claims against polluters denied by the EPA. The denial of environmental claims by communities of color is a testimony to a failing power structure regarding the protection of colored life. The reality of racialized environmental injustice can be found just north of one of the top 13 public institutions in the nation, UIUC. The 5th and Hill community is fighting for their lives, while simultaneously combating a large turnover rate (pressured by gentrification and university expansion). 5th and Hill has been confronted with a human rights issue rooted in neglect. The former manufactured gas plant has closed and Ameren, the current owner of the property has taken measures to remediate contamination at the site, but has failed to address the health threats to 5th and Hill residents from off-site groundwater contamination. Ameren once occupied a 3.5 acre lot near the
cross section of 5th and Hill street in Champaign, Illinois. This lot was the site for a manufactured gas plant from 1887 to 1953. Gas was manufactured through the use of coal; this process involved heating coal and reacting the coal with stem. Next the gas was processed to remove coal tar and other toxic chemical compounds before it was piped to homes and businesses. Coal tar and other contaminants were left on Amerenâ€™s site until the closing of the plant. The Illinois EPA suggested that the area be added to the list of toxic sites due to the known health implications associated with coal tar such as various cancers and diseases. Since being ordered to remediate their site, Ameren has neglected off site contamination documented in their own studies of toxicity in the 5th and Hill community. The Illinois EPA has refused to make Ameren deal with off-site contamination pertaining to the former manufactured gas plant, the contamination in need of remediation doesnâ€™t just stop at the property lines of the Ameren site. The contamination now exists in the soil and groundwater of the 5th and Hill community because of groundwater movement over time. The shifting of groundwater in this case is problematic because of the potential health implications previously mentioned. Lightweight chemical compounds found in coal tar, known as BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene) move with ease through soils and are associated with a long list of adverse
health effects. Although the Illinois EPA and Ameren promised the community proper remediation, the two parties have mentioned themselves that as of now they have no intention of cleaning up the described off-site contamination. Indoor vapor intrusion is believed to be the primary mechanism for the outburst of sickness in the 5th and Hill community. According to the EPA vapor intrusion occurs when there is migration of vapor-forming chemicals from any subsurface source into an overlying building. In the case of the 5th in Hill community the subsurface source is the contaminated groundwater. The contaminated ground water then vaporizes moving chemicals from the ground water into the homes and institutions of 5th and Hill residents. The unfinished basement of the 5th and Hill community contributes to the contaminated water vapor entering the daycares, women shelters, and homes of the 5th and Hill community. An unfinished basement allows more space for the entry of the contaminated water vapor derived from Ameren’s neglect.
In order to update the community on the status of Ameren’s remediation process and to answer questions from residents. Neighborhood residents should have the right to learn about the remediation process in their neighborhood and have a platform to voice their concerns, it is the 5th and Hill community’s livelihood at stake. This meeting denied by the Illinois EPA should certainly be held, especially after neighborhood residents as well as the Champaign County Healthcare
consumers organization noticed a correlation between the proximity to Ameren’s Toxic site and common cancers/diseases shared among community residents. Some may ask what is a manufacturing gas plant doing in a residential zoned neighborhood? The placement of toxic industries in residential neighborhoods is certainly against simple urban planning guidelines. The unfortunate reason for this placement is the same reason other low-income colored communities nationally face the same problem of toxicity surrounding their homes. Due to their historically lower socio-economic status, land in these communities is government seeks paths of least resistance when placing a toxic industry. The issue of 5th and Hill’s local case of environmental racism becomes more disheartening when given proper context. A significant number of inner city communities of color, like residents of 5th and Hill, live where they do due to historical redlining policies. Redlining policy entails a history of banks, the United States Government, as well as other institutions working cohesively in refusing to offer mortgage backed loans to certain neighborhoods based on racial and ethnic composition. As an implication of redlining policy 5th and Hill residents were prevented from attaining wealth through the incentivized real estate market. The United States government cooperated with big banks to deny colored people the opportunity of receiving government insured loans
while simultaneously subsidizing favorable white ethnic groups’ to receive loans with tax dollars black communities contributed to. Hence, in addition to toxic sites predominantly being placed near colored life, blacks were denied the opportunity to move away from these sites by acquiring wealth and real estate elsewhere. Inequitable real estate acquisition during redlining is predominantly responsible for driving the large racialized wealth gap present contemporarily in the nation. It wasn’t until 1977 that redlining became illegal through the Reinvestment Act. Today’s environmental racism struggle is a testament to the consequences of racial
policies such as redlining. Money isn’t everything, but it’s important not to neglect the role financial capital plays in organizing campaigns against toxicity. The lack of opportunity to acquire wealth through real estate contributes to the proximity of contamination near colored lives, the lack of organizing dollars in the community to combat injustice, and the unequal political power structure within communities like 5th and Hill. Historical policies completely out of the control of neighborhood residents are contributing to an inhumane power structure. Additionally, it’s important to note that it’s certainly not just historical policy contributing to the powerlessness
in communities like 5th and Hill, it’s also policies that exist now. For example the Illinois EPA is allowing Ameren to utilize Champaign’s local Groundwater Restriction Ordinance, which allows contamination to remain in the community’s ground-water. This systemic issue is totally unacceptable in a neighborhood that has homes that are structurally inadequate (unfinished basements), continuous flooding, and are home for children, students, and elderly residents.
I’m not from the 5th and Hill neighborhood nor do I live in the 5th
and Hill neighborhood, but I am a human being that cannot stand to see injustice towards any human livelihood. My understanding of humanity is what forces me to stand up to the injustice witnessed. Martin Luther King once stated “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can
References: Champaign County Health Care Consumers, https://www.healthcareconsumers.org/5th-hillfact-sheet/. Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Still More...” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 10 June 2009, https://www. theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2009/06/ still-more/19060/. Covert, Bryce. “Race Best Predicts Whether You Live Near Pollution.” The Nation, 10 Nov. 2017, https://www.thenation.com/article/race-best-predicts-whether-you-live-near-pollution/. Cox, Bartees. “Why Black Americans Are Three Times More Likely to Die from Pollution.” Quartz, Quartz, 13 Mar. 2018, https://qz.com/1226984/ environmental-racism-has-left-black-americansthree-times-more-likely-to-die-from-pollution/. Environmental Justice / Environmental Racism, https://www.ejnet.org/ej/. Environmental Justice: The Need for Equal Enforcement and ... https://scholarship.law.edu/ cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1438&context=jchlp.
we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea.” Implementation of Dr. King’s ideology of interrelatedness is how our society has historically become more equitable. Revisions in the Clean Water Act came from people speaking up and utilizing power or human capital. We all reap the benefits that stem from the people who’ve stood up against inhumane action. Let’s pay it forward to our kids and future generations by standing up for what’s right and humane.
Gross, Terry. “A 'Forgotten History' Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America.” NPR, NPR, 3 May 2017, www.npr. org/2017/05/03/526655831/a-forgotten-history-of-how-the-u-s-government-segregated-america. “Groundwater.” Alberta WaterPortal, https:// albertawater.com/groundwater/introduction/howdoes-groundwater-move. Lee, Trymaine. “How America's Vast Racial Wealth Gap Grew: By Plunder.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Aug. 2019, https://www. nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/ racial-wealth-gap.html. “University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.” Rankings | About | University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, https://illinois.edu/about/ rankings.html. “What Is Vapor Intrusion?” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 24 Aug. 2017, https://www.epa. gov/vaporintrusion/what-vapor-intrusion. Www.nrdc.org. https://www.nrdc.org/sites/ default/files/toxic-wastes-and-race-at-twenty-1987-2007.pdf.
Coal Tar Contamination Throughout Illinois by Nico Vassilakis
The crisis at Fifth and Hill isn’t Ameren’s first time being held accountable for coal tar contamination, but they won’t take any of the steps necessary for cleanup unless they are forced to. In 2016, Ameren was forced to remove coal tar at a plant in East St Louis. Much like in Champaign, Ameren — with the backing of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency — claimed that even though groundwater was impacted by the coal tar, residents were not at risk because the drinking water comes from other sources. A similar cleanup occured in another East St Louis property at the same time. Once again, the Illinois EPA determined that even though there was groundwater contamination by coal tar, Ameren would not be required to do anything about it because the city’s drinking water came from other sources. Unfortunately, the reality of groundwater contamination isn’t just a drinking water issue. In a 2010 Chicago Tribune article, an environmental consultant named Ed Cooney, who has does work on manufactured gas plant cleanup sites, said that coal tar contaminants produce toxic vapors
that can migrate into buildings, as well as seep into rivers and lakes. The same article states that there are over 100 sites in Illinois with coal tar contamination and that the Illinois EPA insists that groundwater contamination doesn’t pose a health threat. Sites like Fifth and Hill exist all over Illinois, and communities all over the state are fighting the same battle with the Illinois EPA, Ameren, and other utility companies. Even worse, there are sites like these all over the state at which no investigation has even been undertaken — and in many towns, people aren’t even aware they’re being exposed to carcinogens. However, there are some sites in the state in which utility companies have been pressured into more comprehensive solutions. In Waukegan, the U.S. EPA conducted a review of coal tar contamination at another manufactured gas plant on the lakefront. Unlike the Illinois EPA at Fifth and Hill, they found that a groundwater decontamination plan with a price tag of $10.6 million was appropriate. Though this is a good precedent for Fifth and Hill, some nearby locations stand out: the Waukegan Municipal Beach, the
Waukegan Harbor and Marina, and the Waukegan Yacht club. The Waukegan Port District sued North Shore Gas Company in October 2018. A line from the suit quoted in another Chicago Tribune article reads, “Those remaining contaminants will continue to cause impairment to the use and value of the WPD property.” In the same article Joe Seidelman, the general manager of the harbor, stated, “They had to construct extra vapor barriers and soil barriers” when building brand new Lakefront Condominiums. The lawsuit is still in progress. The fact that these new buildings require shielding from the same contaminants at Fifth and Hill and can be included in a lawsuit implies that Fifth and Hill should be able to make the same claims. It’s difficult to confirm that the financial privilege of being backed by a yacht club is what allowed for this kind of legal action to be taken, but the language of these lawsuits does revolve around the value of the property that was contaminated. This implies what should be obvious already: the value of the property people live in greatly impacts their ability to demand action.
Barrie Park in Oak Park was cleaned up all the way back in 2003. It underwent coal tar soil decontamination — the same as all these other areas. Although some residents were unsatisfied with the cleanup, the primary concern was once again property value. A Chicago Tribune article from the same time said, “Afraid their properties will be forever stigmatized, some residents have also been pushing the village to buy their houses.” ComEd, an electric utility
company, even agreed to clean out nearby properties that were shown to be contamination to “remove potential stigma.” This once again frames the problems of coal tar contamination in terms of dollar values associated with the properties people live on, as opposed to their physical well being and right not to be exposed to carcinogens like benzene. Coal tar contamination is a problem throughout Illinois. The physical problem of contaminated groundwater releasing carcinogenic compounds into the soil is not unique to any one town or water table in the state. However, the way this problem is approached is dependent on the power of the community to force this change. Without the financial power of a yacht club or the exploding property values of a trendy neighborhood behind them, the Champaign County Health Care Consumers have put in more work than people in a different county would have had to in order to reach the an unsatisfying point of remediation. As wildly unfair and unethical as this is, it speaks to the ability of the Fifth and Hill community to reframe this as a human problem and demand that their right to live safely in their homes be recognized.
References: www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/health/ct-met-coal-tar-pollution-20100704-story.html www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/lake-county-news-sun/news/ct-lns-port-district-sues-north-shore-gas-st1013-story.html www.bnd.com/news/local/article107696777.html www.bnd.com/news/local/article17762468.html www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-02/documents/nsgs-fs-201505.pdf www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2003-07-04-0307040216-story.html
5th and Hill: Timel
line by Carlin Hastings
for Thought: So Privilege, and E by Andy Eltzroth
When most people think about taking steps to conserve the environment, changing their diets isnâ€™t the first thing that comes to mind. However, these two ideas may be more related than you expect. For instance, growing a garden, buying local produce when possible, and shopping at farmersâ€™ markets are all ways to reduce your carbon footprint, as they can lower the demand for produce transported across long distances (and the associated pollution). Similarly, following a vegetarian or vegan diet may help reduce your carbon footprint as it lowers the demand for animal products and the pollution associated with animal agriculture. However, when considering such issues, it is also important to acknowledge food privilege. What constitutes a small lifestyle change for one person may not be feasible for someone of a different background. The Fifth and Hill community is a food desert, which means that residents do not have as much choice over their meals as someone from a different background would have.
A variety of factors make fresh, healthy foods less accessible to those living in food deserts. A food desert is formally defined by the USDA based on proximity to supermarkets, but the practical definition may also involve other factors, such as socioeconomic ones: food deserts are primarily found in communities of color and low-income communities. Distance from supermarkets, as well as lack of transportation, are huge factors in limiting food choice for people in food deserts. Supermarkets in food deserts also frequently have fewer food options to select from compared to supermarkets in more affluent areas, especially perishable goods such as produce. In such cases, making environmentally-friendly choices may not be realistically achievable in terms of affordability or meeting nutritional needs. For the Fifth and Hill Community, it is also relevant to consider that even if food were locally grown, it may not even be safe for human consumption. The waste left behind by the Ameren
ocioeconomic Background, Environmental Activism
plant may contain a toxic chemical compound called BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene) which is known to move through soil easily. Testing has also shown chemical contamination of soil and groundwater on the Ameren property and the surrounding neighborhoods, a total of about twelve acres of land. Plants grown in this area could have absorbed some of these compounds, which have been linked to numerous detrimental health effects.
social factors and accessibility. As environmental activists, we should always take into account that there are multiple aspects to any situation, rather than always promoting the most environmentally-friendly solution as the best one. When trying to educate others on how to live greener lifestyles, a â€œdo what you canâ€? approach is inclusive and accessible to a larger audience compared to an angry or patronizing attitude.
Because unhealthy, processed foods are often much cheaper and readily available than more fresh, nutritious options, people living in food deserts often rely on these processed foods for survival. In the Fifth and Hill Community, this has the compounded effect of potentially exacerbating any pre-existing health issues related to the Ameren plant chemical waste. Although it may seem like changing oneâ€™s diet is a simple way to help the environment, the issue becomes much more complex when considering
5th & Hill: The Faces of Those by Ana Mendoza
Inconvenience takes many forms. Forgetting a calculator during a math exam or spilling your coffee on the kitchen floor are all rather inconvenient. As Webster dictionary states, an inconvenience is “trouble or difficulty caused to one's personal requirements or comfort.” But what examples of situations far surpass inconvenience? Toxic waste sites within a community, environmental hazards and the health implications it has for a community. Most people have heard about the crisis occurring in Flint, Michigan, which began in 2014. When the city switched its drinking water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River in a cost-saving move, inadequate water treatment led to numerous health hazards affecting generations. The thought of something of the like occurring in the University of Illinois’ own back yard is almost unfathomable. However, just a few blocks away from our beloved campus is the intersection of Fifth Street and Hill Street, where an old Ameren gas plant used to reside. After the company left the area, it also left heavy metals, coal tar, and other waste in the ground. While other articles in this issue focus on the science of problem, this article highlights the voices and lives of some of the neighborhood’s community members. We will be highlighting
two people, Maggie Cook and J.B. Lewis, who live a couple houses from the contamination site and have been involved in the ordeal for many years. The Green Observer (GO): When did you first get involved with the issue? Maggie Cook: “It was so long ago, and the reason I got involved was because I didn’t understand why there were people over there [referring to the contamination site] in big white suits. I did not know it was a contaminated site; no one told us it was a contaminated site. If you were working on site and you had to wear hazard suits, what do you tell the people living in the neighborhood near the site? At that point I was mad — very mad. Then, they told us that the site had been restored and placed a large white tent on top — that’s when I knew what we were really up against. You know, a lot of people tend to think that this is about money, but it’s not. It’s about the health and well-being of our community members, our children, and the future generations near site. And that is how I got involved. This is something worth fighting for.” What community member Maggie Cook is referring to is located in Champaign, approximately 10 minutes south of
Lincoln Avenue. The people living near the Fifth and Hill site are majority African-American, many with families and children. Some of the people have even lived in the same home for many decades and have seen the effects the contamination has had first-hand. When the issue was first brought up to city council, some council members and Ameren representatives thought that since many of the community members were not college educated, they could get away with vague and minimal facts. Statements such as “exposure is not immediately toxic”, or the fact that they expected community members to believe that the contamination within the ground would stay within the fenced area (i.e., not moving the toxins) is infuriating. In the words of Maggie Cook, “we may not be college educated, but we are not stuck-on stupid.” The same question was asked to J.B. Lewis, by another community member. GO: When did you first get involved with the issue? J.B. Lewis: “I was aware that there were many health issues among people in the community. In fact, it was well known that many people that had previously
lived near the site suffered from similar problems. I will even use the example of other nearby communities that have suffered similar circumstances [referring to environmental pollution hazards]. Even after the site was declared clean, many residents still had high rates of cancer and other diseases. It’s all in the longevity factor. The longer you are exposed to something the more likely you are to experience the consequences. Same as Ms. Cook had mentioned, my concern is for the younger generations. Yes, there are cases of illness in adults, but the kids that are living the majority of their young lives in these communities are at risk. You know, somebody asked me once, ‘Why do you care? You may not see any of the consequences; thus, it does not concern you.’ But if it’s a problem, it will be faced by someone. And anyone moving into the neighborhood has the right to feel safe and be safe. They should have a quality of life the same as anyone else in the Champaign County community. They should not have to face another challenge just because they are of lower income. That is why I got concerned in the first place. Now my big concern was the fact that we were unable to get information from anyone, and that raises red flags.
“It is not about the money but the right to live a healthy and safe life within their homes.” Specifically, there is something there that someone doesn’t want you to see. As we struggled to gain information, there are also the site standards that have yet to be looked at. Are they the same as when the [gas] company left, have they changed, and has the actual site changed with those times? Even that information we were unable to get, which also raised a red flag. The problem was that we were trying to determine what is safe and what is not safe. And if we do not have at least a basic answer to that, how are we supposed to know if we are safe?” Indeed, there is a higher cancer rate within the Fifth and Hill community than in any other neighboring Champaign-Urbana community. Various cancers including skin and lung are common, as well as other debilitating
illnesses, which threatens the livelihood and well-being of not only those who have lived in the community for a long time, but also those generations growing up and newcomers to the area. The thought that their children and grandchildren may suffer the same diseases down the line is unacceptable, which relates back to what Maggie and J.B. emphasized: It is not about the money but the right to live a healthy and safe life within their homes. There is still much to be done, in order to ensure the cleanup is handled properly. Health is a human right, and the fight is about Ameren claiming responsibility for the disaster and properly cleaning up the site in order to ensure a healthy future for the current and future residents.
Other Ongoing Campaigns by Sowmiya Raju
The Fifth and Hill campaign isn’t the only fight being fought against major fossil fuel companies in and around the ChampaignUrbana area. As Champaign County Health Care Consumers and Black Students For Revolution demand Ameren to take responsibility for the environmental and public health damage caused by Ameren’s former manufactured gas plant, other ongoing campaigns such as the Middle Fork River protection campaign and the campaign against the Bulldog mine fight to protect local rivers, farms, wildlife, and community members from the dangers of coal ash ponds and coal mining. The Middle Fork River is part of the Vermilion River Basin of central Illinois; the Boneyard Creek flowing through the heart of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is also a part of the basin.
On March 26, 2019, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency held a public hearing to receive comments regarding Dynegy’s application for water quality certification. This application is one of the many steps that Dynegy needs to take in order to build a stone wall along the bank of the Middle Fork River — the company’s proposed solution to the problem of coal ash seeping into the river from the coal ash ponds of their former
power plant. A coal ash pond is an engineered structure used to dispose of residual coal ash from the burning of coal, usually located near bodies of water. Dynegy’s power plant, called the Vermilion Power Station, located in Danville, only about 30 miles from UIUC. The plant, which closed in 2011, has three coal ash ponds, all of which were not lined as per EPA standards. Coal ash is currently polluting the groundwater as well as the Middle Fork River, Illinois’ only river designated as a National Scenic River. This was a designation activists worked to establish in order to further protect the river after their successful campaign against a dam proposal almost 50 years ago. The public hearing saw several community members, students and activists speak out against Dynegy’s proposal to either alter the bank of the river or cap the coal ash ponds because neither of these are permanent solutions to the problem. Several of the speakers at the hearing spoke passionately about the river’s recreational, sentimental and ecological value. They spoke of a time when the river used to be swimmable. They spoke about canoeing in the river and about being able to enjoy the diverse natural plant and wildlife along the bank of the river. Prairie Rivers Network, alongside Eco-Justice Collaborative, has been working for over four years to protect the Middle Fork River and surrounding communities from the danger of coal ash pollution as well as to get Dynegy to assume responsibility. Prairie Rivers Network looks to come up with a more
long-term solution than those proposed by Dynegy. According to Andrew Rehn, their water resources engineer, “getting the coal ash out of the floodplain is what needs to happen.” In order to achieve this goal, Prairie Rivers Network has been working with lawyers and using tools such as U.S. Army Corps approval requirements, Park Service approval requirements, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Energy Jobs Act. They worked with the Attorney General and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to build a case that will force Dynegy to take responsibility and implement a more effective and permanent solution to protect the Middle Fork River. In May 2018, they filed a lawsuit against Dynegy. They also made it possible for the public to voice their thoughts as the Army Corps of Engineers took a closer look at the bank armoring permit on the river. The Middle Fork River is only a section of the larger Vermilion River Basin, and Dynegy’s coal ash ponds aren’t the only threat fossil fuel companies have placed on the basin. Another organization working to protect the Vermilion River Basin is Stand Up To Coal. Stand up to Coal was founded in 2010, a year after Sunrise Coal began approaching landowners in Vermilion County, only about 30 miles from UIUC, to lease coal rights. The organization was committed to voicing the concerns of homeowners, farmers and business-people in the area. Suzanne Smith from Stand Up To Coal says, “From our experience, the deck is stacked against communities faced with the prospect of a coal mine. Large, well-funded companies sway landowners
and public officials with promises of short-term jobs and money, and once a community becomes aware of the greater long-term impacts, they face a siloed permitting process preventing a complete overview of the potential impacts of the mining operation on the land, air, water, and communities surrounding the site.”
After Sunrise Coal filed a mining permit application to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) in 2012, homeowners and farmers in the area questioned how such a mine in their locality would affect their community and their health. In 2014, IDNR held a public hearing regarding the
proposed coal mine, where the people of Vermilion County protested the opening of the “Bulldog mine.” Some of the concerns they raised pertained to air quality being affected by coal dust, withdrawals of local groundwater for coal mining, reduced availability of drinking water, storage and release of polluted water, pollution of land by harmful chemicals, farmland being permanently taken out of pollution and quality of life. Suzanne Smith adds, “Furthermore, in Illinois, where there is no severance tax collected from the extraction of our valuable natural resources, the agencies charged with the oversight of these
mining operations and the protection of our land and water are underfunded and understaffed. On the flip side, it is good to see Illinois moving toward alternative energy and establishing the Clean Jobs Bill in an effort to promote the transition to cleaner jobs and a cleaner future for our communities.” Despite the resilience of Mrs. Smith and many other residents of Vermilion County, on April 5, 2019, IDNR issued the required permit to open the Bulldog mine north-west Vermilion County. Stand Up To Coal’s next step will be to work on an Administrative Review, as they hope to overturn IDNR’s decision to issue the permit. Our legislators have introduced laws such as the Clean Water
Act that was passed in the 1970s and the Clean Air Act which is the foundation of environmental policy in the United States. Despite this and our legislators currently debating the Clean Energy Jobs Act in Springfield, concerned citizens still find it hard to have their voices heard as they fight to protect valuable natural resources. The fight against fossil fuel companies that pose a threat to the protection of the Vermilion River Basin continues as awareness spreads and civilians, businesspeople, and students alike exercise their right to have their voices heard.
Thank you! The Green Observer would like to thank everyone who has dedicated their time and efforts to the 5th and Hill cause. Because of their care for the community, this environmental injustice has not gone unnoticed. The Green Observer would also like to thank everyone who has helped us create this issue. It would not have been possible without you. Special thanks to Maggie Cooke, J.B Cooke, Abigale Pstrzoch, Christopher Ackerman and Djordje Takov.