Champaign’s Toxic Neighborhood

It is easy to think of the University of Illinois as somewhat of a bubble, removed from many of the injustices–both social and environmental–that are common everywhere throughout the United States. In recent years (and especially the last decade), grocery stores, restaurants, services, and apartments of varying degrees of luxury have opened on or near campus, further disincentivizing interaction with the surrounding community. It is sometimes easy to forget that there are roughly 150,000 people who permanently call Champaign, Urbana, and Savoy home. Similar to the rest of the world, Champaign-Urbana also possesses social and environmental injustices.

One of the places where the inequality is most evident is North Champaign and Urbana, primarily along the Bradley Avenue corridor. For most UIUC students, University Avenue (with the exception of a few apartments on the north side of the street) provides the campus boundary.

Though this once-distinct boundary between the “town and gown” is slightly more blurred as apartments spring up along University, it does not take a well-trained eye to spot the disinvestment on the north side. Ironically, poverty does not come without its costs. People living in poverty are more likely to die young, be incarcerated, not graduate high school, and develop numerous health problems, and the likelihood is even higher for impoverished minorities. These disenfranchised and non-white communities are also the victims of pollution, or higher than that of their richer and/or white counterparts. The poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s water supply and Chicago’s petcoke storage on the south side are some famous, recent examples in the Midwest of a disturbing national pattern.

Enter the corner of Fifth & Hill, Champaign’s local chapter of environmental racism, located just two blocks north of the lavish Latitude apartment complex, where the majority of residents are disadvantaged and minorities. The site remains toxic from a coal gasification (a slag-producing and environmentally harmful process) plant which operated until the mid-1950’s. Today, the site is owned by the St. Louis energy giant, Ameren, who bought it in 2004 and, though not responsible for the pollution, are now responsible for the cleanup.

Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene (BTEX) have since leaked into the groundwater and soil of the surrounding properties within the last half century and BTEX and/or its contributing chemicals have been linked to low birth weight, hormone-related abnormalities, cardiovascular problems, and other chronic health issues. The neighborhood also lacks proper drainage and flood prevention infrastructure resulting in frequent roadway and basement flooding. This increases the likelihood of exposure to these harmful chemicals.

According to some sources, neighborhood residents were kept in the dark of this danger for up to 20 years by the various energy utilities and the Illinois EPA. Local activists then organized the “Fifth & Hill Cleanup Group” in 2007. Between 2009 and 2011, Ameren finally bowed to the community pressure and began environmental remediation. They replaced soil and injected the ground with a chemical solution to eliminate any remaining contamination on the property with all work finishing up around 2013. Despite their efforts, for many it was too little, too late.

Residents and activists remain skeptical, including Claudia Lennhoff, a social and environmental justice advocate in the area states that the residents “haven’t been informed,” despite promises from Ameren and the Illinois EPA about transparency. Some even fear contaminated runoff will reach the Boneyard Creek and its outflows. Despite this, Ameren insists that no contamination has left the site, but comprehensive tests have not yet been completed to back up the claim.

“We don’t have confidence in Ameren.” Lennhoff told the News-Gazette, “and we have lost all confidence in the Illinois EPA to actually oversee [the cleanup].” Despite the clean-up efforts, community members have since complained about strange odors from the neighborhoods stormwater, frequent headaches, and other health issues.

After reaching out to the US EPA about these concerns in 2014, the national agency recently agreed to test ten surrounding homes for toxic vapors and contamination last October. Tests are scheduled to occur in Spring 2017. Until the results are known and someone is held accountable for the cleaning, when it rains in North Champaign, it will pour.



Image: Google Maps

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