As reported by the News-Gazette‘s Patrick Wade, the Champaign City Council upheld a local groundwater ordinance at its meeting Tuesday evening. The ordinance was upheld by an 8–1 vote, with Tom Bruno the only dissenting party. Champaign County Health Care Consumers, in conjunction with the Fifth and Hill Neighborhood Rights Group, had supported repealing the ordinance, which they claim does not go far enough “to clean up some of the most highly contaminated properties in Champaign.”
This decision, and some of the rhetoric surrounding it, left some hard feelings on the side of CCHCC. Wade tweeted from the council meeting that “CCHCC director doesn’t seem happy with @DonGerard,” and a Facebook page was established on Wednesday by CCHCC bookkeeper Jeff Machota calling for citizens to “Email Champaign Mayor Don Gerard at MayorGerard@ci.champaign.il.us and demand he apologize to Champaign County Health Care Consumers for his attacks on CCHCC last night. Tell him to save his childish rhetoric for Ameren and the other corporations causing harm to the community.”
I followed up with each of the parties to see where they stand at this point.
Mayor Gerard said the following in response to a question about how his views had changed since a statement at the first mayoral debate where he noted rare forms of cancer were present and supported further testing in the 5th and Hill neighborhood as well as making reports public:
Nothing has changed my mind in regards to the validity of the claims. My point was there will be no direct positive results for the 5th & Hill neighborhood by virtue of voting to repeal the ordinance. I noted if we are to address the needs of the community we need to do so in a manner which is meaningful and appropriate. I said at the debate I would support a repeal if it was in the interest of the citizens of Champaign. Having studied the issue and consulted a number of sources I determined I did not believe it would have any effect and would, in fact, actually discourage future clean-up attempts.
I spoke with [Community Organizer] Grant Antoline from the CCHCC and he assured me he would provide the information we can use to work to actively help those affected by the Ameren site.
I will always work with any individuals or groups who wish to better the community and I am grateful Mr. Antoline put service above himself and agreed this is the prudent course of action to take.
The following is the text of an email exchange between Smile Politely and CCHCC Executive Director Claudia Lennhoff.
Smile Politely: What is CCHCC’s response to the council vote which failed to repeal the groundwater ordinance?
Claudia Lennhoff: We are of course disappointed in the City Staff’s recommendation and the Council’s vote to support the recommendation and keep the city-wide groundwater ordinance. Unfortunately, the majority of the Council seem to believe that the 2007 groundwater ordinance is what has caused polluters (and those responsible for cleaning pollution) to undertake remediation. I think this is a very faulty assumption, but it’s the one that carried the day. There are plenty of longstanding polluted properties in Champaign that have made no progress in getting cleaned up, despite the existence of the ordinance. Also, there are properties that prior to the 2007 ordinance were cleaned up.
So we are disappointed, but the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign will continue its work to make sure the full extent of contamination from the Ameren property is identified and addressed.
CCHCC is grateful to all the residents of the 5th & Hill neighborhood, and from the City of Champaign who took action and stood up on this issue. This issue is about the health and safety of all residents of the City, and about a precious natural resource that belongs to all of us.
Smile Politely: What is your personal response to Mayor Gerard’s comments regarding CCHCC?
Claudia Lennhoff: I think the Mayor’s comments were not only inappropriate, but factually incorrect, and I wished he would have used his position to help advance the cause of the greatest number of people affected by the issue at hand.
Unfortunately, the Mayor seemed to find the facts inconvenient and rather than listen to a constituency, has refused to address our concerns and instead used his esteemed and elected position to denigrate a local non-profit that provides invaluable service to this community.
It is unbecoming and unprofessional for the Mayor to publicly badmouth any organization or individual, especially a small Champaign-based non-profit. Would the Mayor have dared do the same about a business, going as far as to say that the business was discrediting itself?
The issue remains that the residents of the 5th & Hill neighborhood are living in the midst of toxic contamination and have to deal with that every single day. CCHCC will stand with the residents and continue the struggle to bring justice and improved health to the affected residents. The residents spoke with dignity and in the interest of the greater good last night, and we would hope that they could set an example for the Mayor.
All other City Council members used their comments to focus on the issue at hand, many expressing concern for the greater community and how to balance their responsibility in regard to the groundwater ordinance.
Regarding the specific issues that the Mayor raised, where he was factually incorrect and grossly misrepresented CCHCC:
1. About the 20-some year old county ordinance prohibiting the drilling of potable water wells — CCHCC actually got that information from Eleanor Blackmon, Asst. City Engineer. I told the Mayor afterwards that I would share that e-mail with him. It’s unfortunate that he assumed that it was CCHCC who got our facts wrong. If that fact is wrong, it was the City that got it wrong.
2. About the lack of opportunity to have our comments or written materials included in the staff report — CCHCC requested of staff how we could do that; how we could share our criteria for the case-by-case groundwater ordinance with the City Council. Again, by e-mail, we were told to simply present it at the Study Session. We were never told that we could submit written materials to be included in the packet, even materials from our environmental consultants, as the businesses were afforded the opportunity to do.
3. About our “anecdotal” information on polluted residences and our failure to provide the mayor with the data from test results — this is patently false. We have provided the City Staff with data and reports at every step of the way, and the very first time we met with the Mayor at Mr. Pelmore’s home, we provided him with a packet of the same information. We also informed him that all the data and reports had been provided to staff. It’s completely wrong to characterize our statements about contaminated residences as being “anecdotal” and it’s very unfair to the residents who went through the process of having their homes tested.
4. About our failure to get involve in the Clinton Landfill/Mahomet Aquifer issue — we had actually just sent the mayor an e-mail that told him that we would be happy to support his and the City’s position on this. And earlier in the year, we reached out to the citizen group in Clinton/DeWitt County that is working on this. If the Mayor were organizing a response and wanted organizations to sign on, we would be absolutely willing to do so, and we stated as much. Also, I think it was unfortunate that the Mayor chose to imply that that issue is the “real” issue and the groundwater issue in Champaign is not nearly as important. The Clinton Landfill issue is of tremendous importance, but it does not invalidate the importance of the groundwater issue in Champaign or the issues that 5th & Hill residents are facing as a result.
CCHCC will continue to stand with the residents and our focus will be on advancing the goals of the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign.
Postscript: Today, CCHCC sent the following email to their listserv:
CITY COUNCIL VOTES TO KEEP GROUNDWATER ORDINANCE:
After lengthy discussion, the Champaign City Council voted in a straw poll to keep the city-wide Groundwater Ordinance as is, without any changes. The City Council also voted to create a new requirement to add transparency and notification when a polluter (or company responsible for cleaning pollution) chooses to use the Ordinance in its remediation plan. The exact language of the City Staff recommendation that the Council voted to support (with the exception of Tom Bruno) is as follows:
“Recommended Action: Direct staff to maintain the current groundwater restriction ordinance as enacted June 5, 2007, and to add transparency to the ordinance by adding a City requirement for public notification of the intent to utilize the groundwater ordinance.”
Tom Bruno is the only Council member who voted against keeping the ordinance as is, and he made a great statement prior to the vote.
All Council members who spoke prior to their vote (except the Mayor) seemed to really struggle about whether to repeal the ordinance or not. The argument that seemed to carry the day (we vehemently disagree with this argument) is that the 2007 Groundwater Ordinance promotes clean-up of toxic properties, and without it, companies may not choose to do any clean-up.
DOES THE 2007 GROUNDWATER ORDINANCE PROMOTE CLEAN-UP OF TOXIC CONTAMINATION?
In fact, the argument that the 2007 Groundwater Ordinance promotes clean-up and repealing it would decrease clean-up, is verifiable and can be empirically researched.
One would simply have to do research to determine whether toxic contaminated properties HAD been cleaned up and remediated in Champaign, prior to the existence of the 2007 Groundwater Ordinance (the answer is YES).
In addition, one could do research to see if, since the passage of the 2007 Groundwater Ordinance, some of the most notorious and long-standing, highly contaminated properties in Champaign are moving toward clean-up (the answer is NO).
Unfortunately, the City Staff did not present comprehensive research on the question of whether the Groundwater Ordinance does in fact promote clean-up that would otherwise not happen. But, of course, that argument was also promoted by the 6 corporate representatives of the properties that benefitted from the use of the 2007 Groundwater Ordinance.
Also, it is important to know that under state and federal environmental regulations, if toxic contamination IS identified or known to exist, if it exceeds state standards, it MUST be addressed somehow. Corporations are given the opportunity to address it “voluntarily” by entering into the IL EPA’s Voluntary Site Remediation program, as opposed to being forced to do it.
Regardless, this is the argument that carried the day so that the 2007 Groundwater Ordinance was not repealed.
OUR RESPONSE AND NEXT STEPS:
Clearly, we are disappointed. We delivered over 1,000 petition signatures calling for the repeal of the ordinance. The City Council members all received numerous phone calls and e-mail. Residents of the 5th & Hill neighborhood passionately pleaded their case and have been patient and dedicated throughout this part of the struggle. So, we are disappointed that the City of Champaign has chosen to keep this bad environmental policy on its books.
But disappointed is not defeated.
The residents are not giving up — what’s at stake is the health and the lives of past, current and future residents of the neighborhood. The residents are not giving up on the struggle to get their neighborhood cleaned up, so we are not giving up. The residents are working in the interests of justice and the greater good, and we have always known that this is a long, arduous, and multi-faceted struggle with many local, state and federal regulations that impact the process and the residents’ rights.
We are meeting with residents next week to determine next steps in the Campaign, and I promise that we will keep you all posted on our upcoming activities and let you know how you can help.
A COMMENT ABOUT THE MAYOR’S STATEMENT:
Some of you may have seen the City Council Study Session and heard Mayor Don Gerard’s comments at the end of the discussion prior to the straw poll vote.
Unfortunately, the Mayor chose to use his comment time to make critical statements about CCHCC, rather than to address the immediate issue at hand or express concern or support for the affected residents. The Mayor’s comments were disappointing, but more importantly, they were factually incorrect.
CCHCC will address our concerns to the Mayor directly, and present him with the factual information about the issues that he raised. However, one issue deserves to be addressed here, to CCHCC supporters:
The Mayor suggested that CCHCC had undermined our 5th & Hill cause because we didn’t have our facts right and because we have never presented hard data showing that residents’ properties are affected by the contamination. The Mayor stated that our evidence is “anecdotal” and “vague.”
In fact, the Mayor has been personally presented with data and reports from the homes that have been tested by our environmental consultants. City Staff have also received copies of these reports, every time we have new data.
We met with the Mayor shortly after his election, and handed him a packet of data and reports on the environmental tests of seven residents’ homes. Furthermore, we have released these data publicly in press conferences, and provided electronic and hard copies to City staff.
However, in a good faith effort to collaborate with, and inform the Mayor, we have once again compiled a set of the test data and reports, and will deliver those to the Mayor’s office this afternoon, so that he can be disabused of the notion that our claims are “vague” and “anecdotal.”
Our commitment remains to the residents of the 5th & Hill neighborhood in their pursuit of justice and a better, cleaner, safer environment where they live. They have conducted themselves with dignity, integrity, and in the interest of the greater good.
We will continue to move forward with this Campaign and will welcome the good faith collaboration and assistance from the Mayor, the City of Champaign, and any other individual or entity who wants to join with us in this just cause.