Some Progress, But DePue Residents Still Waiting For Cleanup OK

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The "Black Pile of Death" - slag left from decades of operations at the former New Jersey Zinc smelter plant - greets you as enter DePue.
Credit Guy Stephens

There are signs of activity in a decades-long effort to clean up an Illinois Superfund site. But it’s still unclear when full remediation will occur.  

This started out to be a feel-good story – a follow-up on the plight of DePue. It’s a small village west of LaSalle known for its annual speed boat racing championships. It’s also home to a Superfund site. A public Record of Decision and a plan of action for the area was mapped out a couple of years ago, so cleanup work must have begun – right? 

Nancy Loeb is the director of the Environmental Law Center at Northwestern University. But as far as progress — she didn’t sound happy when she was called about DePue this summer.

“There has been a total failure on the part of both the State of Illinois and the parties responsible for this contamination, to move this forward and protect the people of DePue,” she said.

Loeb helped the village as it battled ExxonMobil and CBS. They’re the owners of a fertilizer plant and an old zinc smelting operation responsible for overlapping waves of contamination in both the town and lake. She and others have also helped DePue as it prodded the state to act in the decades since the site’s Superfund designation in 1996. 

Neither ExxonMobil or CBS would make anyone available or offer a comment for this story.  But, it was pointed out, some progress has been made. Several years ago, the fertilizer plant site – called a phospho-gypsum stack – was found to be leaking toxins into the water table, despite being capped years before. ExxonMobil has just completed re-capping the site, and it’s hoped that will stop  further contamination.

Toxins are also flowing into the lake from the old smelter plant. The source is easy to see. As you come around a curve on the road into town, there’s a series of bluffs – imagine a small version of the Indiana Dunes, except for the color – that residents refer to as “The Black Pile of Death.” That cleanup – and that of the lake – are both years away.

Lake DePue. Speed boat racing championships are held on it every summer. But the once-deep spring-fed lake is now shallow in many spots because of accumulated silt, which can't be dredged due to the presence of toxic waste.
Credit Guy Stephens

But what you don’t see has worried residents, too. Namely, the stuff coming out of the smelter’s smokestacks for decades that settled on the land where they and their children lived, worked and played. 

Loeb credits Illinois Environmental Protection Agency staff with doing their part in recent years to sort out the technical issues. But Village President Eric Bryant said the problem begins with the Superfund process itself. He called it a mess.

“The responsible parties are able to drag their feet on too many things," he said. "And there's so many rules in that document that, you know, puts them in pretty good control of what goes on so, you know.”

You get a feel for that when you look at the public documents. The Illinois EPA would offer a list of toxins found in the soil they said were the result of the plants’ operations. The companies, known together as the DePue Group, would counter that the substances were naturally occurring. So the exact level of contamination that required action had to be agreed upon. And if, as they say, “football is a game of inches,” it has nothing on DePue. The IEPA would say yards should be dug down several feet to remove all contaminated soil. The DePue Group would counter that a foot, or less, was good enough. Bryant said the state and CBS, which is responsible for the residential cleanup, finally came to a compromise.

“If there is contamination below 18 inches, they will stop," he said. "They will remove that 18 inches [of soil] there. [Then] they will put down what they call an institutional control -- it'd be like an orange fence. And then they would cover it with clean soil. I feel pretty comfortable about it. Of course, I'd like to see it deeper. But you know, children don't play that deep normally.”

Just don’t plan on planting a tree -- or anything else that requires much digging.

DePue Village President Eric Bryant
Credit Guy Stephens

Most of the village is within a few blocks of the old site, so most if not all of its soil is likely affected. But negotiators ended up with a plan to first evaluate each person’s yard on a case-by-case process.   

That brings up the latest point of frustration. 

“There is a consent order laying out how the properties in town will be tested. And that's going on. Now, there has to be another one, [a] consent decree agreed upon between EPA and responsible parties, on the cleanup. And that has not been done yet.”

Which means, at this point, no cleanup is actually scheduled once testing is completed, or even assured.

A site map of the DePue area. OU (Operational Unit) 2 is the phospho-gypsum stack that has been re-capped. OU4 includes the residential areas being tested and -- pending a consent decree -- to have contaminated soil removed.
Credit IEPA

Loeb said she understands the DePue Group’s motivations for dragging things out. It’s all about the money, she said. But at this point? So close to a resolution? It’s an absolute outrage, she said. And that goes for the IEPA, and particularly the Illinois Attorney General’s Office as well.

“I am so troubled," she said, "that these companies, almost 25 years later have done nothing to clean up the pollution that is affecting people's lives, and that the State of Illinois is not using all of its powers to move this forward now.”

The Office of the Illinois Attorney General said it was unable to do an interview for this story. But it did issue the following statement:

“The Attorney General’s office is committed to having the company remediate the residential properties as soon as possible. We are currently in settlement negotiations with the responsible party that will result in the cleanup of these properties, which continues to be one of our top priorities” 

Well and good, say the villagers. But, after years of such assurances, they are still left asking: when? When can they get on with their lives and begin to look to the future with confidence in the place they call home?

Credit Guy Stephens