Are some Illinois communities at risk of a Flint, MI-like water contamination crisis?
That is, in part, the warning issued by a recent Chicago Tribune editorial over concerns stemming from a decision to allow dumping of construction site debris into unlined quarries all across the state.
In the hopes of landing the 2016 Games in Chicago, Illinois passed legislation that allowed this dumping. The belief was that doing so would help alleviate the cost and expedite the potential construction commitment needed to host an event of such magnitude.
Environmental experts objected to the move, arguing that contaminants would undoubtedly seep into aquifers and poison drinking water. Groundwater monitoring provisions that were promised were never set up, according to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA).
The Illinois Attorney General’s office also has raised concerns.
Now, some members of the Illinois House are pushing House Bill 3056, which would mandate groundwater monitoring at unlined quarries throughout the state.
All clean construction and demolition debris fill operations at unlined quarries would be affected. Amendments to the current guidance on groundwater monitoring in quarries would be adopted to require and regulate these operations and all uncontaminated soil fill sites as well. Exemptions or certain exclusions would be granted during a period of “dewatering."
"I am now going to start fighting for real protections for our groundwater in Will County and all the other countries where these quarries are," said Rep. Margo McDermed (R-Mokena), sponsor of the legislation, which has 28 co-sponsors.
The legislation has drawn support from both sides of the aisle, with Rep. Elgie Sims (D-Chicago), a co-sponsor of the bill, recently telling the Kankakee Times that the legislation is pivotal for his constituents.
"Clean, safe drinking water is essential to our health and quality of life and our drinking water supply must be protected as one of our most vital resources," he said. "I will continue my efforts to support and sponsor legislative measures to protect our environment and make our communities safer, because future generations are depending on us to make the right decisions today for the world they will live in tomorrow.”
Governor Bruce Rauner supports the bill, as does State Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Skokie), a declared candidate for the 2018 gubernatorial election.
“I do support HB3056 and will vote for it if does come over to the Senate,” Biss told the Illinois Valley Times.
Environmentalist groups also have shown support for HB3056.
The Illinois Environmental Council, one of the only environmental groups to have commented on the issue prior to the introduction of the bill, called the legislation an exceptional approach to the problem.
“Contaminated debris that is sent to quarries in Illinois poses a risk to the groundwater of local people,” Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, told the Will County Gazette. “At a minimum, the law should be changed to require groundwater monitoring to protect people near these sites."
Jack Darin, the director of the Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter, expressed similar thoughts.
“Quarries normally stop mining rock when they hit the water table, so there is great concern for interaction with waste materials and the aquifer,” he said. “Sierra Club has worked for many years to either oppose quarry disposal of demolition debris or other wastes, and also to require better groundwater monitoring, materials testing, and other safeguards in cases where it is, unfortunately, happening.”
Despite this seemingly broad support, will the legislation pass? That’s where politics comes into play.
The bill is opposed by some quarry operators. In 2009, Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass wrote about one of these operators, Michael Vondra, whom Kass calls a “big-time political contributor” who “runs several quarries among his many business ventures.”
Kass’ 2009 column was regarding the Illinois General Assembly’s initial actions — via then-Senate Bill 1607 — to open up the unlined quarries to the dumping of the construction debris.
“Vondra helped found the Land Reclamation and Recycling Association, which is pushing for the bill with the assistance of lobbyist Victor Reyes, the puppeteer of the mayor's Hispanic Democratic Organization patronage army,” wrote Kass. “Reyes once headed Daley's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, as front man for Daley's political brain Tim Degnan. Reyes' lobbying partner is Mike Noonan, an ally of House Speaker Mike Madigan and former campaign manager for Mike's daughter, Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan.”
Writing that the effort was “all about money,” Kass further connected the dots between the 2016 Olympics, local political concerns, and the effort to open up the dumping.
“Most of the South Side's Michael Reese Hospital complex is scheduled for demolition so (then-Mayor) Daley can build his 2016 Olympic Village,” wrote Kass. “Politically connected trucking barons who'll haul the debris will save time, gas and money by dumping in nearby Cook County quarries rather than dispatching their trucks to some far-flung landfill.”
Eight years later, the 2016 Olympics (held in Rio de Janiero, Brazil) have passed and, despite concerns raised by environmental groups and the Illinois Attorney General’s office, the dumping is still allowed.
Whether or not politics will trump the bipartisan support that House Bill 3056 has attracted remains to be seen.
Based on data from the state Environmental Protection Agency, there are 77 unlined quarries across the state that carry the potential for contamination of groundwater. Forty-four of the quarries are in the Chicago metro area, while the remaining sites are scattered across communities downstate.