Pace of hazardous waste cleanup frustrates DePue residents

Pace of hazardous waste cleanup frustrates DePue residents
By Ryan Haggerty, Chicago Tribune reporter
December 17, 2012
DEPUE, Ill. —
This tiny village tucked into the Illinois River Valley is known for its lake, a tranquil body of tree-lined water that has drawn thousands of spectators to a national boat race for nearly 30 years.

But most visitors heading to Lake DePue must pass another village landmark before reaching the shore — a pile of contaminated slag weighing at least 570,000 tons that looms over the main road into town, left behind by a zinc smelter that employed many locals for decades.

The mound of black slag is the most visible symbol of the toxic legacy that haunts this town about 20 miles west of Starved Rock State Park, where other facilities that made sulfuric acid, paint pigment and fertilizer also left behind a host of contaminants when they closed.

The village’s leaders and residents say they’ve felt abandoned for years, locked in a three-way struggle with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the two companies responsible for the industrial sites as they seek to have the contamination cleaned up. Officials with the IEPA and the companies, ExxonMobil and CBS Corp., say they are committed to cleaning up the contamination but the work is naturally slow because of complicated government regulations and the site’s complexity.

That response rings hollow for DePue residents, whose patience wore thin long ago. But many say the involvement of Northwestern University’s Environmental Advocacy Center — which is providing DePue with free legal representation — has given them some much-needed clout and could help the town finally realize its goal of eliminating or containing the contamination.

“We’ve got some credibility now,” Village President Eric Bryant said, a huge map of DePue’s contaminated sites spread out on the table before him.

“It’s not like we’re just a bunch of hicks out here crying about our town being contaminated,” Bryant said. “All the complaining we’ve done, we’ve learned that there’s good reason for us to be worried about the type of cleanup we get here.”

Local exodus

Many DePue residents speak with a mix of nostalgia and concern about the industrial plants that used to operate in the village.

They remember the jobs that were available for them as soon as they finished high school, and the jobs that kept their fathers and uncles employed for most of their lives.

But they also remember playing with friends in the woods by the lake, near pipes that spewed blue-green water into a creek. They talk of the smoke that ruined the paint on their cars, prompting the plants to cut checks to residents to cover the repairs.

Joe Haywood, 83, worked at the zinc smelter for years, driving dump trucks filled with waste from the smelting process onto the slag pile, a hellish place where flames licked up from the surface and fumes choked the air.

“It was a little scary sometimes,” Haywood said, sitting with his wife in a restaurant on the village’s main street. “You’d back up to dump the stuff, and you couldn’t see.”

The smelter closed in 1990, meeting the same demise as the other industrial facilities that operated in DePue.

The jobs haven’t returned, but the remnants of all that heavy industry — elevated levels of metals, including zinc, arsenic, cadmium and lead — have seeped into its lake, groundwater and soil, prompting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to classify about 950 acres as a Superfund site. The Superfund program deals with abandoned hazardous waste sites.

Although the lake is contaminated, the village’s drinking water is safe because it is drawn from wells that reach below bedrock, officials say. Still, many residents say they buy bottled water rather than drink from the tap.

The village’s property values have plummeted, trapping residents who can’t move out unless they’re willing to absorb a crushing loss on the sale of their homes. Many residents suspect that the contamination has caused cancer, multiple sclerosis and other illnesses, although no long-term studies have tracked residents’ health.

With the village’s industrial jobs long gone, many of DePue’s 1,838 residents struggle to find steady jobs with decent pay, Bryant said. Only one new home has been built there in at least the last 15 years, he said.

“A lot of people have left,” he said. “Kids who go to school here don’t come back.”

But as some residents fled, DePue’s cheap property and low rents and the availability of jobs at a mushroom-processing facility outside of town attracted an influx of Hispanic immigrants, many of whom now say they had no idea the town was polluted when they moved in.

“A lot of people didn’t know,” said Angel Raya, who moved to DePue from California about 22 years ago to join his cousin at the mushroom facility. He didn’t realize the slag pile was contaminated until he heard others talking about it, he said.

“I never knew anything about the pollution,” said Raya, who now owns a small grocery store in the village and has raised three children there. “I like this town. It’s quiet. But we worry about the contamination.”

Slow cleanup

Efforts to assess and clean up DePue’s contamination date back to at least 1980, when a preliminary assessment was completed, according to the IEPA.

A second assessment was conducted about three years later, followed by more studies, inspections and testing over the next three decades, according to the agency.

Some remedial work has taken place, such as removing polluted sediment from a drainage ditch that leads to the lake and building a water treatment plant that treats runoff from the smelter site.

But residents point to the polluted lake and the towering slag pile as evidence that the IEPA, ExxonMobil and CBS have taken far too long to do too little work.

“They don’t seem like they want to take it seriously,” said Barb Belski, a lifelong resident. “They just talk, talk, talk. But talk is cheap.”

Some residents became so frustrated with the decadeslong pace of the cleanup in the early 2000s that they quit their posts on a volunteer board that met regularly with IEPA officials to discuss the work, Bryant said.

“They’ve gotten pretty apathetic,” Bryant said. “They’ve lived with this for so long, they’ve been told the same things over and over, they haven’t really seen any significant cleanup done that makes their quality of life any better.”

Charlene Falco, an IEPA specialist who began supervising the agency’s work in DePue about two years ago, said she’s been trying to move the process along more quickly.

“We’re going to take the time we need to work those things correctly, and at the same time, I’m very mindful that we need to accelerate things,” Falco said.

Nancy Loeb, director of Northwestern’s Environmental Advocacy Center, said the IEPA’s focus on DePue has improved since Falco was assigned to the site. But Loeb called the long-term pace of the work “shocking.”

“It’s incredible that even things like cleaning up people’s yards to try to protect people and getting the ball fields clean for children is something they haven’t done,” Loeb said. “How can you be quite so lacking in care? These are human beings.”

Legal assistance

When Loeb and other experts at Northwestern became involved with helping DePue about two years ago, one of their first steps was obtaining thousands of pages of reports and studies examining the contamination that hadn’t been made available to the village’s residents.

“They were completely excluded from knowing what was going on,” Loeb said. “Now they’re given an opportunity to learn what’s going on and to provide comment on it, and that’s a huge change.”

Under federal Superfund regulations, ExxonMobil and CBS must pay for and complete investigative and remedial work in DePue, with the IEPA providing oversight.

ExxonMobil and its predecessor companies ran the fertilizer plant from the early 1970s into the 1980s, when the plant closed and its buildings were demolished, said Joseph Abel, ExxonMobil’s project manager for the cleanup efforts in DePue.

CBS gained the former zinc smelter property through a series of mergers and acquisitions after the facility closed, a company spokeswoman said.

Officials with both companies pointed out that environmental cleanup projects governed by Superfund regulations are often painstakingly slow.

“It’s at times very frustrating for us, the pace at which we have to move,” Abel said. “We’ll do whatever it takes to get it done. Obviously, we’d like to be done as quick as possible as well, but again we (have to) follow that process and that procedure, and we’ll follow it until we’re complete.”

DePue residents simply don’t want to wait any longer, said Roianne Holt, a manager at the only gas station in town.

“They don’t live here with their families, so they don’t have to breathe the air, play in the parks,” she said of ExxonMobil and CBS officials as she stood in the gas station’s parking lot, across a set of railroad tracks from the abandoned industrial sites. “They should come down here and live with their families for a year.”

Some optimism

There are signs, however, that momentum may be slowly swinging back to DePue’s side.

The volunteer board that disbanded several years ago reformed again in late 2010, energized in part by Northwestern’s legal and scientific support.

And Loeb, Bryant and several DePue residents credit Falco for what they say is an improved responsiveness from the IEPA. At a meeting with volunteer board members in DePue this month, Falco patiently answered their detailed questions and promised to look into questions that required more research.

Being as open as possible with residents about the IEPA’s work in the village has helped regain some of their trust, Falco said in an interview.

“They still think it’s happening too slowly, but I think they have a little bit more of an appreciation of how some of the issues get worked out,” she said.

To fully restore residents’ trust, however, the IEPA’s oversight of the cleanup will have to produce large-scale results, such as cleaning up the lake and removing or securing the slag pile, Bryant said.

“I see that black pile every day,” Bryant said. “I drive by that lake every morning. The dream is to have it restored. I’ve always been a dreamer.”