An Illinois village paved with toxic waste—and the long road to cleaning it up

The toxic slag pile leftover from smelting industries sits beside Marquette St. Photo by Stephanie Fox/Medill.

By Stephanie Fox and Zoe Johnson  

DePue, a village just off Interstate 80 in Central Illinois, houses 1,727 people, a grocery store open two hours a day, a municipal office where village clerk Jane Vickers still uses a typewriter for memos, and two mounds of toxic metals.

There’s a gypsum stack and the “Pile of Black Death.”

That’s what DePue Mayor Eric Bryant calls the 750,000-ton mass of slag left from the New Jersey Zinc Company’s smelting plants, which operated for more than 80 years before closing in 1990. A few blocks away, the three-story-high gypsum stack appears less ominous due to the growth of some vegetation. However, it is the byproduct of phosphate fertilizer and sulfuric acid plants, in operation for 20 years beginning in the late 1960s and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, it is highly toxic.

DePue has been a federally declared Superfund site since 1999, meaning that the village is seriously contaminated with hazardous waste including, but not limited to, zinc, lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium and copper. Fifty-seven different metals have been found throughout the community.

“The entire village is contaminated,” says Nancy Loeb, director of Northwestern University’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic of the Pritzker School of Law. The clinic provides pro bono support to the village of DePue. Though the piles hold most of the waste, the toxins are not limited to the stacks. The slag that eventually created the “Pile of Black Death” also was once handed out to residents as a multi-purpose mixture that could cover streets and driveways or fill holes. As a result, virtually the whole village is paved with toxic slag, Loeb says. Additionally, aerial depositions of the same heavy metals released into the air during the smelting process contaminated the vast majority of residential properties and public spaces. 

Toxic waste weight
The Pile of Black Death, at 750,000 tons, is about twice as heavy as the Empire State Building, at 365,000 tons. (Graphic by Zoe Johnson/Medill)

The land on which the slag and gypsum piles sit, and therefore the piles and all resulting contamination, currently belong to CBS/Viacom International Incorporated and ExxonMobil Corp., respectively.

Neither company responded to requests for comment for this story.

The two corporations, legally referred to as the DePue Group, agreed to clean up the sites under the terms of a 1995 consent order filed in the Bureau County Circuit Court between CBS, ExxonMobil and the state of Illinois.

In the 22 years since then, some progress has been made on the Superfund site, and continues now, monitored by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA), which is responsible for ensuring the corporations follow through on their legal responsibilities.

Last spring, construction began on the closure of the gypsum stack, a process that involves covering the toxic material and updating existing water routing and treating mechanisms, to prevent contaminants from seeping into the surrounding environment.

“Whenever you close a landfill or anything like this, one thing you want to do is eliminate direct contact with the material, and so the cover is for that purpose,” says Charlene Falco, who oversees the DePue site for the IEPA.

The estimated 17-month project, which is on track to be completed in late 2018, is consistent with the Interim Consent Order for the site and Illinois regulations.

When the federal EPA orders a clean-up of a toxic waste site, it often undertakes the process on its own, then legally forces the companies responsible for the waste to foot the bill. However, the state agency has the lead in DePue because it got involved with the case before the town was given Superfund status—and the IEPA doesn't have the legal authority to force the DePue Group to pay for cleanup efforts, so it must work with the corporations to implement change.

Many DePue residents were frustrated but not surprised to learn this summer that the IEPA had launched yet another research project on polluted Lake DePue rather than moving forward with cleaning up the contamination.  The 500-plus acre lake became contaminated over the course of decades when waste water from the smelters was released directly into the lake. After 22 years of fighting for the remediation of their town, they have grown to expect the slow pace.

“Every time I drive by, it just really aggravates me,” says Keith Garcia, a science teacher at DePue High School. “Having it in the immediate area and not seeing a lot done with it…just after a while, you just kind of shake your head.”

The IEPA’s current research focuses on the toxicity of Lake DePue’s water, as measured through fingernail clams.

“We’re hoping to learn whether or not Lake DePue has a negative effect or no effect on the mortality of fingernail clams,” Falco says. “If the fingernail clams appear to be impacted in Lake DePue…then there must be something going on in [the lake] that is a little unusual or a little different.”

They recently completed a pilot test of the study, to ensure that the design would function well and wouldn’t pose a risk to the surrounding ecosystem. The study will then be continued next summer and will take an estimated eight weeks.

Clam cage

The design of the ‘clam cage’ was tested last summer as part of a pilot test for a larger study of the toxicity of Lake DePue’s water. (Photo courtesy of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.)

The study is part of the IEPA’s plan to adhere to the requirements of the Superfund program, which mandates that risk assessments for human health and ecological impact be conducted before cleanup plans are developed. Both assessments were initiated years ago, but the DePue Group argues that data on ecological impact was inconclusive, so the IEPA has agreed to conduct additional studies—including the clam study—to reach consensus on the results.

“If we know that a site is risky enough that it has to be cleaned up, there’s always more detailed decisions that have to be made,” Falco says, including the geographic extent of the cleanup and the standards of cleanliness to which the site is held. “Risk assessment can help inform some of those decisions, but there are other factors we take into account, too.”

Falco points to the Superfund guidelines as one source of the delay. There are many steps to the cleanup process; doing them—and doing them well—takes time.

“We acknowledge and we recognize that it’s taken a long time to get to where we are and we’re trying to not prolong it longer than we absolutely have to, but we want to get the data that we need to make good decisions, and once we get those decisions made, there are a lot of things that have to happen,” Falco says. (The process is detailed in the chart below).

Superfund toxic waste clean-up
The process of cleaning up a Superfund site, from start to finish. (Graphic produced by Zoe Johnson/Medill. Information courtesy of Charlene Falco.)

Nevertheless, the slow pace frustrates residents. Some feel that the research serves to enable yet more delays for the DePue Group.

“They wait 20 years, letting [the toxic waste] all soak in and then they test [the water] like it’s still the same” lake, says Bryant.  “It should have been done a long time ago. The deeper you go, the worse it gets. That’s why nothing was tested before. Because it would have been worse.”

While their emphasis on scientific evaluation as mandated by Superfund regulations is understandable, the sheer length of time dedicated to the studies—and the lack of tangible change in the years following—is not, according to residents. After the IEPA took nine years to run tests on only a small portion of the town, before spending five months only partially cleaning up the waste in that small area, DePue residents began to question the likelihood that all of the  contamination would be removed. Meanwhile, property values have plummeted, and with DePue’s average single family home valued between $30,975 and $36,500—compared with the Illinois average of $214,900—it is impossible for many people to leave. 

“They talk in circles,” says one DePue resident about the IEPA. “They might be telling us they are working at the speed of light, which is fine because maybe paper-wise, behind the scenes they are. But when you look at the lake that has not been touched, the black pile that has not been touched, that’s what the townspeople want to see [removed].” This resident, along with others interviewed for this article, asked not to be identified out of concern that they would provide incorrect information or misrepresent their town. Myths have accumulated with the years, and it is difficult for them to know what’s really going on.

A generation of children, many of whom are involved with baseball and soccer teams, has grown up with the toxic waste piles.
A generation of children, many of whom are involved with baseball and soccer teams, has grown up with the toxic waste piles. (Stephanie Fox/Medill)

DePue’s population of 1,727 is about 42 percent white and 55 percent Hispanic, with small numbers of Asian, Black and Native American people making up the rest. The village school building houses the elementary, middle and high schools, with approximately 500 students total.

Once, the village’s economy and recreation centered around its spring-fed lake. The famed purity of the water led to a booming ice-harvesting industry, which supplied the Anheuser-Busch Brewery throughout the 1800s. There was also a commercial pure-water fishing industry, and recreational sports of many kinds.

“We used to swim in the lake, boat, water ski, fish, and play ice hockey in the winter,” says Garcia.

But long gone are the days of clean water and thriving industry. These days, notable landmarks include the waste piles, lawns covered in the two-foot layers of imported soil necessary for grass to grow, and the neon-green stream that snakes through DePue, carrying runoff water from the slag pile to the lake.

South Ditch river
The South Ditch river flows into Lake DePue, once so clear that its water was harvested for ice. (Stephanie Fox/Medill)

According to the U.S. EPA’s 2016 Toxic Release Inventory, the lake is contaminated with not only those metals but also mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs are human-made chemicals that were used as coolants and insulators among many applications until they were banned in 1979. Both mercury and PCBs can affect the neurological system, and PCBs can affect the reproductive, immune, nervous and endocrine systems as well, according to the EPA.

Though no comprehensive health studies have been done on the people of DePue, the presence of highly toxic waste throughout the village indicates that the slow clean-up may not be just an annoying bureaucratic failure. Some residents consider it a direct threat to their health.

“I believe that they’re just waiting for everybody that remembers to die off,” says former DePue resident Christine Snyder, whose brother Joe passed away in 1997 at the age of just 36 from multiple sclerosis (MS). MS, along with prostate cancer, has been more prevalent among DePue residents who grew up by, or worked in, the now-closed factories as compared to U.S. figures, says Bryant, a prostate cancer survivor.

“Eventually, no one will remember anymore. I mean, it’s been 20 years,” Snyder says. “I don’t have much hope that anybody higher up is going to do the right thing.”

In 2001, scientists at the Texas Tech University conducted a study noting the DePue population’s significant exposure to heavy metals, including zinc, and concluded that the MS incidence rate in DePue was “statistically significant.” The National Multiple Sclerosis Society later identified the case on their website as an industry-based cluster. Though it is extremely difficult to establish correlation and even harder to show causation between environmental sources and disease, the Texas Tech study also concluded that exposure to zinc could be a factor in the development of the cluster.

“I’m not certain that the people doing the manual labor really understood what they were working with and what the potential hazards were, on a personal and environmental level,” says Garcia, who worked in the zinc factories during the summer in high school. “I’m sure the management team, probably the lab personnel, had a pretty good idea.”

Due to the lack of studies, there continues to be limited information about exactly what health risks are present in DePue, and what residents can do to protect themselves.

“Well, we don’t drink the water, for one thing. As far as how the ground is around here, I have no idea,” says Brian King, who owns a bodega in DePue.

Others are less concerned.

“I used to consult with Rich Lang, who used to work for [the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency]. He’s retired. I used to talk to him a lot and he told me, basically, if you don’t eat it or breathe the dust, you aren’t going to ingest the metals,” says Bruce Yuvan, who works at the water treatment plant.

Toxic metals can, however, be transmitted through diet, handling or inhalation. Many residents don’t let their children play in the dirt, but there is no way to prevent them from breathing the air.

DePue
A street in DePue, where the whole village is contaminated by heavy metals. (Stephanie Fox/Medill)

 

Theoretically, Superfund status provides additional incentive and ability to clean up a site rapidly, and after DePue was named a Superfund site, residents thought that the IEPA would force ExxonMobil and CBS to act. But when no change seemed forthcoming, residents sought legal support with the help of the EAC.

“We’ve been working with these people for a long time now and we’re committed to continuing, to move forward, to help protect them, to get the town cleaned up,” says Loeb. “The cleanup hasn’t happened yet, but we’re moving forward.”

Loeb acknowledges the difficulty of speeding up the time-consuming process, but remains hopeful about the clean-up timeline.

“We certainly hope all the residential properties and public spaces are cleaned up in the next two or three years at most. And we hope that all the remedial plans for the site are completed within the next five years; that there are consent orders requiring the cleanup of everything in the town by that point. We would say 10 years is a very long time to have all the cleanup completed,” she says.

As the years pass and residents see little change, many, like Snyder, have lost hope that DePue will be cleaned up in their lifetimes. Bryant, however, is adamant that as long as people care about their town, things will get done.

“I would like to see the community get a little more involved and a little more optimistic that this is going to happen,” he says. “How much gets cleaned up is going to depend on the job we do making things happen. We were able to stay on the IEPA and the responsible parties that keep trying to minimize things. We’ve got to stay on them and make sure we are getting a fair deal. Somebody has got to be watching what’s going on.”

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