History of contamination: coal tar hidden for decades

By Maggie Menderski / State-Journal Register Staff Writer Sept. 13, 2014 TAYLORVILLE -- The trouble in Taylorville began with 50,000 gallons of residual coal tar buried underground.

Taylorville Gas and Electric Co. constructed a gas plant on the southern edge of town in 1892. Central Illinois Public Service Co. purchased the site in 1912 and operated it until 1932. Beyond gas, the plant produced coal tar, a dangerous byproduct now known to cause cancer in humans. CIPS closed the plant in 1939, used it for storage for several years, and then sold the property in 1961 without mentioning the coal tar buried beneath the soil, according to court documents.

The contamination first surfaced in 1985, when Apple Contractors attempted to place a private septic line in the ground and found strong odors and discolored soil.

“They’d open up these tanks of coal tar that had been essentially sealed and buried for decades,” said Bill Clutter, a private investigator who worked closely with the four families who sued CIPS after their children developed neuroblastoma. “It’s kind of like with asbestos. The cure can be worse than the disease.”

The discovery spurred a series of investigations and cleanup efforts from CIPS and the Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, Taylorville authorities took complaints about the strong smells coming from the site and nearby Manners Park. “There’s no question that people in Manners Park and that people in Taylorville got a dose that nobody else that we know of got in Illinois,” said Tom Londrigan, the lawyer for the families.

Approximately 9,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil was excavated from the site in 1987. The excavated area, which was about 10 feet deep, was backfilled with clean soil. Today, groundwater at the site still doesn’t meet safe drinking water standards.

Municipal water service was provided in 1987 to nearby residents who had been on private wells, and CIPS completed the construction of the groundwater pump and treatment system in February 1995. The pump is still in operation today, and Illinois EPA spokesman Francisco Arcaute said it may be decades before the groundwater meets drinking water standards.

Still, the action came too late.

Data from the Illinois State Cancer Registry labeled Christian County as the only county in Illinois with a statistically significant excess of neuroblastoma cases from 1986 to 1997. The Donaldson, Hryhorysak, May and Steele families all at some point lived less than 3 miles from the site, and each family ended up caring for a child with neuroblastoma.

“The observed calculation was just off the charts,” Clutter said. “It couldn’t be a random event. This isn’t due to chance, and there’s something in the environment causing it.”

The EPA believes almost all Superfund sites have the potential for reuse, but some sites have strong controls in place to ensure safety that may prevent reuse.

Illinois is one of 23 states that use environmental covenants to ensure that landowners follow restrictions and mandated environmental monitoring requirements for cleanup sites. These agreements are not required as part of an environmental response project but are strongly encouraged, as the EPA can disagree with the method of cleanup.

The EPA entered into a covenant in 2012 with Ameren Corp., which formed when CIPS merged with Union Electric Co. in 1997 and is now responsible for the site. Ameren officials said the U.S. EPA pushed for the covenant a few years ago to attach the terms of the site’s restrictions to the property deed. Arcaute said the covenant will ensure that protective components are maintained, monitored and enforced to ensure long-term protection of public health and the environment.

Don Richardson, environmental consulting engineer for Ameren, said the pumps at the site are checked twice daily and weekly reports are submitted to the Illinois EPA to ensure compliance. Today, the space serves as a storage unit for utility poles, and Richardson said that’s how the company will continue to operate it for the foreseeable future.

Richardson said the Taylorville site was among the first of many cleanups for the company. Ameren has about 45 sites that have gone through investigations and remediation, and Richardson said about half of those have been completely cleaned up.

He said safety is the company’s top priority, and that spans from the streets their trucks drive on to the gear their workers wear on site.

“There are natural steps for planning, and we collaborate with the Illinois EPA to make sure up front before we do anything that they have (a) say,” Richardson said.