The weather is warming up, and that has many looking forward to activities like the summer boat races on Lake DePue next to the Illinois River. For the residents of the Village of DePue, it also means trying to enjoy the outdoors safely in a town suffering contamination from a Superfund site. Efforts to clean up the area began decades ago, but progress has been beyond slow.
Driving the road into DePue off of U.S. Highway 6, your first impression is of the wooded hills as you descend deeper into the Illinois River valley. It’s a lovely sight, as is Lake DePue itself, a natural spring-fed body of water barely separated from the Illinois River.
But as you approach, the road curves and something else comes into view – “The Pile of Black Death.” That’s what the 1800 or so residents call it. A two-or-three story high range of bluffs, made up of the slag from a zinc processing plant that closed decades ago. Unfortunately, the toxic blend hasn’t stayed put. It’s blown or seeped into the soil of the village and the lake as well; parents warn their kids not to swim in the lake, however inviting it looks on a hot day. Mayor Eric Bryant tells a familiar story.
“That zinc plant was the life of the community. The community had money, you know; they were able to do things. The plant was a very, very positive thing, and now the cleanup has been very, very negative, and we’re just trying to work our way through it,” he says.
Bryant understands many places across the country have similar stories. What gets him and the other residents angry is how long it’s taking to fix the problem. The smelting operation, along with a phosphate fertilizer plant across town, closed in 1987. The plants were demolished in 1991. And they were supposed to be cleaned up.
Nancy Loeb is director of Northwestern University Law School’s Environmental Advocacy Center, which has been giving legal help to the village. She says that, unlike those you see today, the 1995 consent decree between the owners -- now ExxonMobil and CBS -- with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency did little to advance cleanup efforts.
“Unfortunately,” Loeb says, “this consent decree does not provide for actual cleanup. It provides for testing and writing of reports and doing studies, but it does not provide for actual cleanup for the Village of DePue.”
With the center’s help, the village has worked to become more involved in that process. It’s taken the companies to court. Villagers even created a website -- cleanupdepue.org -- to drum up public support for its plight. It includes a detailed history, pictures and comments from residents like Mayola Perecco.
“I want my little ones to go to school and grow up in this town. But I want a safe town. I don’t want a contaminated town,” Perecco says in a website montage of residents.
Loeb and village residents say the companies have delayed taking action in order to preserve their bottom lines.
Neither CBS nor ExxonMobil would comment for this story, except to confirm that they were working with the IEPA on the site.
Loeb says more progress has come from changes in the IEPA. She says that, for 15 years, the agency did little -- and that slowly. That changed six years ago.
“Illinois EPA brought a new project manager onto the site, Charlene Falco, and there has been a very noticeable uptick in commitment at the agency, or at least at the project manager level, to move things forward,” Loeb says.
Despite that push, progress still feels painfully slow. Project manager Falco says part of that is baked in.
“Each one of those steps there has a name -- remedial investigation, feasibility study, record of decision, etc. -- and we can’t leapfrog those steps. We have to go through that process,” she says.
On top of that, Falco says, the site is complex. There actually are five distinct areas that each needed its own study and mitigation plan.
Just one of those has been completed and sent to the U.S. EPA for approval, but it’s an important one. It affects residential neighborhoods and a city park regarded as hazardous to children’s health because of the polluted soil.
But actual cleanup could take up to a couple of years more, and questions about how the U. S. EPA will handle projects like DePue under the Trump administration only make the timeline more uncertain. Falco gets the frustration, but she’s got a job to do.
“It’s a balancing act that you have to do between doing things quickly and doing things thoroughly -- and making sure all the bases are covered,” Falco says.
DePue’s situation provides some justification for that stance. A ditch coming out of the old smelter supposedly was cleaned up decades ago, but Falco’s team found waste flowing into the lake. And then there’s the old fertilizer plant, which looks like it was taken care of -- landscaped and grass-covered like a circular pasture – except it turns out that it, too, is leaching toxic material into the town. It all takes time to sort out. But Falco says many similar sites have taken just as long, and the village shouldn’t feel it’s been singled out.
“That’s not to say they don’t have reason to be upset about the pace, just to know that they are not quite alone in that,” she says.
Loeb understands that too, but she says it’s hard when you think of the kids growing up in DePue. She doesn’t disguise her bitterness toward the companies, who she says were well aware of the condition of the sites and the responsibility that went with them.
“Now, having taken that step and bought into it, they are dragging their feet and not getting this place cleaned up for these children,” Loeb says.
So why not just leave it? For Falco, this is what she does. The same goes for Loeb. Each is on a mission, whether they call it that or not.
But what about the residents? The ones who’ve stuck it out for decades, with the prospect of years of effort ahead? Another voice from the cleanupdepue website -- that of DePue High School Science teacher Keith Garcia -- gives an answer.
“You’ve grown up here, you have family here, you have friends here, you have deep relations. You have a very tight-knit community,” he says.
In other words, it’s home.