Toxic pollution plagues Village of DePue for 17 years

By Kaley Fowler

Seventeen years have passed since the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency ordered two major corporations to clean up 950 acres of toxic pollution in the Village of DePue, yet thousands of tons of hazardous waste remain in the small Illinois town.

Since closing in 1989, the remains of a zinc smelting plant have been reduced to a 750,000-ton slag pile in the center of the town of 1,800 people—most of whom are of the low-income Latino demographic—contaminating the village’s water, soil and air, according to Jeff Spitz, associate professor in Columbia’s Film & Video Department and executive director of Groundswell Educational Films, a nonprofit organization that has created a series of webisodes to raise awareness about the community’s struggle.

Spitz said a 1995 consent order issued by the IEPA and the state of Illinois holds ExxonMobil and Viacom International Inc./CBS, the most recent owners of the factory, responsible for conducting research and cleaning up the town. While the IEPA maintains that the corporations—known as the DePue Group—are addressing the issue, environmental activists and community members are pushing to speed up the process.

“I know these things take a long time, but if people have to live in soil that could be hazardous to [their] health, then something is very wrong with the process to get a superfund site cleaned up,” said Eric Bryant, mayor of DePue.

According to Maggie Carson, IEPA communications manager, DePue was added to the EPA’s Superfund National Priorities List in 1999, which means the site is occupied by toxic waste that requires the EPA to devote extra resources to its cleanup.

Because this particular site is so large, it has been divided into five smaller operable units, and each unit addresses a specific problem, such as the slag pile or the contamination of

Lake DePue, according to Carson.

“The Superfund process, by its nature, is lengthy and complex because there are so many required elements to it, including a great deal of public outreach and involvement,” Carson said. “You [look at] those various operable units involved, and it just adds to

that complexity.”

Carson explained that each operable unit must be treated as an independent contamination site, which essentially means there are five superfund sites in DePue.

“Each part of the site goes through a risk assessment process as both a human health and an ecological risk assessment,” said Charlene Falco, IEPA project manager for the DePue site, adding that no risk assessments have

been completed.

Spitz said residents of DePue are frustrated because the assessments must be finalized before any cleanup efforts can take place, despite the IEPA intervening 17 years ago.

To raise awareness, Spitz’s team at Groundswell created the website to chronicle the process. The website uses interactive media such as clickable maps, webisodes and a virtual tour of DePue to engage viewers in the community’s struggle to speed up the clean up.

The website also highlights IEPA statistics regarding the levels of contaminants such as zinc, lead, arsenic and cadmium found in water, air, soil and sediment, which Spitz said could pose a threat to residents who have experienced long-term exposure to pollutants.

Although Spitz said many community members are worried about potential health implications, the IEPA maintains that health problems may not be a concern.

“I don’t know if I’m really to the point where I can make any definitive statements as to whether or not [health] risk is significant,” Falco said. “What we do know at this point is that there are certainly contaminants present onsite … that are present above various screening criteria that we use to judge whether or not a potential

risk exists.”

In addition to health-related concerns, many fear for the environment. Northwestern University Law School’s Environmental Advocacy Center began doing pro bono work for DePue in 2010 to provide the resources necessary to stand up to the responsible parties.

Nancy Loeb, director of the center, explained that before Northwestern got involved, DePue’s residents lacked the financial clout necessary to have a voice in the clean up process. Now that the EAC is involved, residents have access to information released by the DePue Group and the IEPA.

“For the first time in 17 years, the village has some seat at the table,” Loeb said, adding that the EAC does not agree with the accuracy of the research funded by the

DePue Group.

She explained that the DePue Group’s cleanup plan, which has not yet been approved by the IEPA, includes leaving all contamination at the former plant site and covering it with earth. Any other contaminants found throughout the town would also be buried.

Loeb expressed that simply burying waste is not the right approach to fixing the problem. David Gossman, an expert in hazardous waste litigation, echoed her sentiment and said more creative alternatives should be pursued.

“As an environmental advocate, I’m not real fond of burying things, so I find it a little frustrating to see those types of solutions so often,” he said. Repurposing slag into other items is one alternative

Gossman suggested.

According to Loeb, it will be another several years before work will be done on the site, but activists are continuing to push for transparency and involvement throughout the process.

“Some of the challenges we have made and the scientific evidence shows that things need to be done here; it’s a long battle,” Bryant said. “We’ve changed from just being a bunch of hicks out here crying foul to having some credibility.”