Village of DePue receives response from IEPA about lake cleanup

Spectators gather on the shore of Lake DePue for the annual boat races. Photo courtesy of DePue resident Carol Greathouse.

The Village of DePue received last Monday a response from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) to many comments it had made on the ongoing Superfund cleanup project at Lake DePue.

The lake, which has been designated a Superfund site for 12 years now, is better known for its annual boat races. But though the end of July saw the 27th Annual U.S. Title Series National Boat Races on the lake, as well as the Village of DePue’s 150th anniversary, lately the inhabitants don’t feel much like celebrating.

“We’ve had very little say in what’s gone on here, and getting into the decision-making process has been a really big impediment,” said Eric Bryant, mayor of the Village of DePue. Part of the problem is the fact that the Superfund process has many steps and little room for the opinions of those it most affects, he said.

It is also really complicated, which Bryant said has been frustrating for him and his predecessors.

“I’ve been told that if it wasn’t a Superfund site it would have been cleaned up already,” he said.  “However, if you go back to when our village was trying to get things cleaned up, becoming a Superfund site was the best thing to do.”

“Superfund is process-heavy, there’s no denying that,” said Charlene Falco, IEPA project manager for the site.  But she added that the site’s designation is still desirable.  “If this were not a Superfund site, there’s a good chance that there wouldn’t be any cleanup that’s going on.”

According to the USEPA’s website, “Superfund is the name given to the environmental program established to address abandoned hazardous waste sites. It allows the EPA to clean up such sites and to compel responsible parties to perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA-led cleanups.”

The responsible parties, in this case, are Exxon Mobil and CBS/Viacom.

“We are battling two of the richest companies in the world, and it’s kind of like David versus Goliath here,” said Bryant.

The lake, heavily contaminated by a former zinc smelter, fertilizer plant and other industrial operations located there for many years, is now so polluted and silted-in that residents worry whether the boat races will be able to continue much longer. This same lake was once pure enough to harvest huge blocks of ice and haul them down south to the St. Louis breweries.

“That doesn’t mean much now,” Bryant said.

The sole recourse of the village and its counsel, led by Northwestern University’s Director of the Environmental Advocacy Clinic, Nancy Loeb, has been to formally comment on the human health and ecological risk assessments performed on the lake.

A consulting firm hired by the responsible parties performed the tests, and among the most pressing of concerns for DePue’s counsel is to ensure that the investigations and assessments are accurate, impartial and fair. Nancy Loeb and colleagues from Northwestern performed their own analysis of the data and testing for comparison.

“Our reports on the lake called into question the conclusions reached by the consulting firm,” said Loeb. After performing their own analysis and careful review of the assessments done by the remedial parties themselves, they added these comments to a letter sent to the IEPA. The letter, among other things, stated that more in-depth testing was needed and serious remedial action would need to be taken to make the lake safe once more for residents and visitors alike.

The IEPA, however, disagrees with these conclusions, and said so in their Monday response.

“Overall, Illinois EPA believes the risk assessments were conducted appropriately, consistent with Superfund guidance and protocols. Illinois EPA does not believe that any of the outstanding issues on these two risk assessments justify the agency’s rejection of either assessment, to cause the investigation to be redone, or to prompt an additional sampling effort.”

CBS agreed, via Vice President of Communications Shannon Jacobs, in a written statement: “Every aspect of the process – including the development of the work plan, the supervision of the actual sample collection, the selection of the locations from which the samples were collected and the handling of the samples – was all done in conjunction with the Illinois EPA. There is no question that the data is of good quality and was collected impartially.”

As the conclusions reached by the tests will have direct impact on how the situation is handled, the Village of DePue takes them very seriously.  How the rest of the cleanup will proceed (including whether or not the lake will be dredged, as some believe it must be) hinges on this.

Counsel for the Village of DePue’s latest missive to the IEPA will reflect that.

“We simply can’t understand IEPA’s decision not to require deeper core testing and analysis,” said Loeb. “We are very concerned that this decision is a sign that IEPA has prejudged the remedial action and decided not to take significant remedial action, including dredging the lake.”

How the IEPA will respond to this statement remains to be seen. The remedial investigation, which must be finished before the IEPA can decide what action to take, is projected for completion by the end of 2011.

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