Clean Dumps May Not Be So Clean, State Suit Charges
This story was co-published with the Chicago Sun-Times.
For seven years, Wendy and Terry Greenrod complained to local and state officials that two quarries converted to landfills near their LaSalle County home took in prohibited debris threatening to contaminate drinking wells.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has now followed up with two lawsuits accusing the so-called clean landfills in tiny Sheridan, 60 miles southwest of Chicago, of accepting metals, plastics, batteries and other materials that can pollute soil and groundwater.
“It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” said Terry Greenrod of the quarries, which by law are only allowed to accept construction and demolition debris free from harmful contaminants.
The lawsuits followed inspections by state environmental regulators who last year cited more than 70 quarries across Illinois, including some in the Chicago suburbs, for high amounts of harmful chemicals and metals.
The Greenrods and other residents, along with Madigan, environmental groups and some lawmakers, argue the only way to know if those sites threaten drinking water is to test groundwater around the quarries. But a testing mandate was blocked in the legislature recently by a coalition of industry groups, including quarry owners and road building companies.
Safety of water from these types of landfills has been debated for a decade. Both Madigan and Will County, which has nine sites — more than any other county— have pushed for water testing. After hearing from both industry and environmental groups, the Illinois Pollution Control Board, a rules-making body, previously rejected mandatory groundwater testing around the dumps. Madigan, in an action separate from the Sheridan lawsuits, has appealed the board’s decision, a case now pending before the Illinois Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, concerns about quarry dumps continue to mount. Dozens of citations were issued last year after state soil tests. Among the violations: Two quarries in Will County and another in Cook County tested at higher-than-allowed concentrations of mercury; a McLean County site in Central Illinois tested high for lead concentration; a quarry in Kendall County tested at high levels of the weed killer Atrazine; and five sites scattered across Cook, Kane, Kankakee, and McLean counties tested at higher-than-allowed levels of arsenic, according to Illinois Environmental Protection Agency records and interviews.
Both sites in Sheridan were once mined for sand and gravel to construct roads and buildings in Chicago but are now supposed to be repositories for non-toxic broken concrete, brick and stone, with the goal of preparing the land for redevelopment some day.
It’s important the pits, porous deep holes, don’t accept materials that could wash harmful chemicals and metals into the ground and eventually into drinking water sources. But Madigan’s lawsuit accuses the Sheridan quarries of cheating.
Branko Vardijan, the operator of the sites, said he would answer the attorney general’s lawsuit in court but declined further comment.
Quarries offer a lower cost alternative to regular landfills for disposal of construction debris, but the “clean” dump concept has long been controversial.
Alec Messina, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s appointee to head the Illinois EPA, said he supports groundwater testing around quarry sites.
At the same time, however, Messina said he is “trying to strike a balance” and had hoped business interests, environmental groups and state legislators would have been able to agree on a compromise bill this year.
That didn’t happen. Madigan and environmentalists wanted groundwater testing, but business groups resisted, arguing it was expensive. Madigan, in talking points shared with legislators, estimated an upfront cost for each site of around $156,000 to install monitoring wells.
The cost of ongoing monitoring would depend on the size of the quarries but would be a fraction of the dumping fees operators charge, Madigan argued. Industry groups said Madigan underestimated the cost and called the testing an unnecessary expense, citing the state Pollution Control Board’s previous ruling.
The raw material and road construction lobbies also wanted to peel back some of the rules and sought higher limits allowed for chemicals detected in the quarries.
"Quarry landfills do not have the appropriate safeguards in place to protect groundwater,” said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the coalition Illinois Environmental Council. “The failure to pass legislation this year that would require groundwater monitoring put Illinois communities at risk.”
Ironically, both sides in the debate cite the Sheridan controversy to bolster arguments over water testing.
Dan Eichholz, executive director of the Illinois Association of Aggregate Producers, said Illinois already has strong laws in place to protect water and the Sheridan case shows the attorney general and state EPA have the tools they need to deal with quarry owners who break rules.
But Will County officials, who have been working for years to win stricter rules for the quarries, said there needs to be more accountability. Water testing is one option.
“Everyone would be more prone to play by the rules if they think there’s some liability on their side,” said Brent Hassert, a former Republican state representative and lobbyist for Will County.
But the water testing is central to the conflict, with both sides arguing the merits and expense of monitoring.
“The big issue is the groundwater monitoring,” said state Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria, who chairs the Illinois Senate Environment and Conservation Committee. “In my mind, we’re trying to figure out where it’s appropriate and where it’s not.”
State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, whose district includes the Sheridan sites, said the groundwater monitoring should be part of any reform. She also chided her colleagues who cater to the industry.
“I’m very frustrated,” Rezin said. “I knew the pushback would be strong. However, I didn’t anticipate how strong the pushback would be.”
The two Sheridan sites are on either end of the village, each sitting along the Fox River. For at least several years the sites have been accepting metal, plastics, batteries and other legally prohibited materials that can pollute the soil and groundwater, according to the two lawsuits filed in May by Madigan. The lawsuits, which allege 35 legal violations, followed the inspections of the sites by the Illinois EPA last year.
Separately, the Sheridan sites’ operator is accused of illegally dumping materials in a nearby stream, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps turned that case over to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in January.
Meanwhile, the Greenrods continue to worry about contamination to their 120-foot-deep drinking water well and those of neighbors. The couple, along with two other nearby residents, Ken Thompson and Don McNelis, continue to air their concerns to their village board and local zoning officials at public meetings each month.
Village officials have said the state hasn’t done its job policing the quarries, an assertion with which the Greenrods agree. Whether it’s Madigan, Illinois EPA or the state legislature, someone in government needs to address the problem, Wendy Greenrod said.
“I want them to shut him down,” Wendy Greenrod said of Vardijan. “I want them to make him clean it up and I want them to make sure there is never a [clean dump] facility at those two sites again.”
“It’s not working,” she said. “It’s hard to believe Branko is the only bad actor.”
Environmental reporting at the BGA is supported by Joel M. Friedman, President of The Alvin H. Baum Family Fund.