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Town Faces Uncertain Future As It Deals With Pollution From The Past

An Illinois town that, for decades, benefited from industry has seen that prosperity go away.  While the jobs have left, the community is left dealing with the aftermath.

Lee Strubinger visited the small town of DePue to see first hand how the town is coping:

I'm on a drive with DePue Mayor Eric Bryant, he's mayor of the village of about two thousand people along the Illinois River in Bureau County.

"The Rock Island line used to come through there. Bring ore in... and take zinc out," Bryan recalled.

For almost eight decades DePue was an industry village.  Rail cars full of metals would roll into town. Workers for the company New Jersey Zinc produced materials use for automobiles and household appliances.  Through a series of mergers, CBS/Viacom purchased New Jersey Zinc Gulf and Western even opened a factory along Route 29, and made fertilizer.  Mobil Chemical took over the plant 40 years ago.

In the late 80's and early 90's, Mobil Chemical and New Jersey Zinc closed.

Today, the village looks different.

When New Jersey Zinc left, they left behind a 570,000  ton slag pile of heavy metals in the middle of town.  The result is elevated levels zinc, lead, arsenic, as well as ammonia in the groundwater and surface water.

The entire village is a Superfund site.  Bryant is taking me to one of the most contaminated areas in town.

" When the plant was running, water was a pretty color of orange and blue.  We thought it was neat when we were kids... We had no clue what was going on. Back then there was no EPA."

We're looking at the fenced off Mobil Chemical site that looks like a single hill, about one-hundred acres big.  This is the phosphogypsum stack, a residue left over from making fertilizer.

Phosphogypsum is best known as wall board, the white material used to build homes. The material isn't being used because some of the ore is too radioactive for home use.  The Exxon/Mobil project site has been re-purposed as a landfill.  The stack is covered with several grasses.

"They've got it all so it comes down into this lake. And the water drains into a leeching area.  And it goes into the water treatment plant where it's treated and then pumped into the river. It's too contaminated to be in a stagnant pool of water," Bryant said.

As the mayor and I drive from the site, Bryant says the citizens of DePue are frustrated with the progress that's been made.  He says the village is being managed, rather than cleaned and fixed.

"The Illinois EPA sues Mobil and CBS and everyone starts to think, great, something's finally going to be done," the mayor said.  "Eighteen years later, they haven't done anything. The Lake gets worse and worse.  They've (the citizens of DePue) been to meeting after meeting.  That gets old."

But there are some residents who decided to stay,  Nick and Beth Pothoff even decided to move back to the village and build a home three years ago.   Beth said it was exciting for the community to see construction.

They said the decision to move back wasn't easy.  Nick says he could tell Beth wanted to live in her home town.  She has her memories here, even though some of them involve the black slag pile in the middle of town.  "When I was in track in high school, we would run past there and there would be this greenish, blue-ish, neon looking water.  I would always try to tip-toe around it," she said.

Both CBS/Viacom and Exxon Mobil and the State E-P-A say they are still in the investigation phase of the clean-up process, a process that's gone on for almost two decades.  All parties say the Superfund process is a lengthy and bureaucratic.  CBS and Exxon declined a recorded interview.

And the Village of DePue, the Pothoffs and Mayor Eric Bryant wait and hope something gets done.


"This is where I was born and raised. This is my hometown.  I'd like to see it get back up on it's feet and be the nice prosperous little town that it used to be," Bryant said.

Now, the I-E-P-A is working with residents and collecting soil samples around the community to get a clearer picture of the clean-up that needs to be done.


DePue Mayor Eric Bryant
Lee Strubinger/WUIS /
DePue Mayor Eric Bryant
A sign shows frustration with the clean up process.
Lee Strubinger/WUIS /
A sign shows frustration with the clean up process.
The Pothoff family chose to build in DePue
Lee Strubinger/WUIS /
The Pothoff family chose to build in DePue

Copyright 2013 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

Lee Strubinger completed the University of Illinois Springfield's Public Affairs Reporting graduate program and is currently in Colorado.