Testing for toxic chemicals to begin after Jan. 1 near Amerock

By Richard S. Gubbe
Contributing Writer

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) has announced testing for buried toxic chemicals in and around the land north of Kent Creek near the Amerock Corp. plant will take place after the first of 2012, The Rock River Times (TRRT) has learned.

Mark Wagner, the lead investigator for the team assigned to the two-pronged investigation into well water contamination and toxic chemical dumping in the area near the former Amerock facility, said a metal detector, soil sampling equipment and other methodology will be used to identify toxic substances around the creek, in the field north of the creek and around the Northwest Community Center (NWCC).

Wagner said the investigation will move into the second phase after the completion of the groundwater testing to determine the source of benzene contamination found on Alliance and Soper avenues and Auburn and Parkside streets.

The United State Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) announced recently it will supply at least 16 homes with free water hookups to the city water supply after the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) requested assistance from the USEPA last October. Identifying the source of the pollution still remains.

Residents in that area complained of foul water last July. The source of the contamination is believed to come from an underground leaking gasoline tank in the area. During its investigation into the groundwater complaints, The Rock River Times also learned of toxic dumping into the area around the former Amerock facility for four decades beginning in 1956. Allegations surfaced of toxic substances from the plant into the creek as well as the burying of chemical drums north of the creek and other pollutants around the community center while Amerock and other businesses were in operation.

My plan is to employ that whole northern part of Kent Creek with metal detectors and find out what might be there,” Wagner said. “We’re going to survey as much of that area north of the creek that we are able to get to unobstructed. Our metal detector fits on a 2-foot by 4-foot, two-wheel cart. We have to have it be able to be pulled along the surface of the ground. There are some limitations there on what we can do. We wouldn’t be able to get into any areas with trees.”

Wagner added that the area around the bridge that is part of the Mel Anderson Memorial Bike Path will be surveyed as well as the plant itself. He said the IEPA is working out details with the NWCC.

I think there are some areas there (around the NWCC) we are concerned about,” Wagner said. “There are some areas west of the original plant that we’re going to see if we can’t get into.”

Wagner and members of his team, the Rockford Park District and the Illinois Department of Public Health toured the area last October, but TRRT agreed only to assist in the investigation by supplying information and wait until now to disclose the IEPA’s investigative plan, which includes finding out whether materials are still located in the plant and whether toxic materials were dumped into a well head under the plant.

We’ll have to be in contact with the parent company of Amerock and the current owners of the facility,” Wagner said. “There will be some coordination there to get permission to go to that property. Part of the process is to identify responsible parties to let them know there’s an investigation. I will check with our attorney to see how many folks they want to get a hold of to tell them we are going to undertake an investigation. In some cases, we contact the last operator of that facility of the actual process that we are investigating. We may just have to notify Newell Rubbermaid to see who they want notified for the Superfund investigation.”

Newell Rubbermaid, Inc., owned Amerock before selling it to Denovo Properties, a toxic waste site cleanup company. Previous owners include Anchor-Hocking Co., Stanley Works and the original owners, the Aldeen family.

The Rockford Park District has cleared the land north of the creek and has plans, Wagner said, to return the land “to a more natural habitat.” He said the clearing of the area will actually aid the IEPA in their search for 55-gallon drums that are allegedly buried in the land there.

That’s going to aid us when we go out there and do our metal detection survey and start that process. That’s going to be after the first of the year,” Wagner said.

Statements given to TRRT in the past four months led to the IEPA investigation into the burying of drums in the land north of the creek and other possible toxic materials in the land around the NWCC.

As things wind down on the groundwater side, we’re in the process of gearing up and finding time and working on the access agreement with the community center,” Wagner said. “We had a meeting around the 21st of November with the president of their board and their executive director, and we’re in the process of working out an access agreement with them.”

Reports from residents who lived there in the 1950s and 1960s have included the burying of a crane and other building vehicles and equipment on NWCC property.

We’ll go back out there after the first of the year and start the process of identifying areas we think we are going to have to investigate further. If they buried an old truck in there, we would be able to go over it with a metal detector, and we’ll be able to see that and plot it on a map and make a decision and find out if it is a hazardous material or not,” Wagner said. “Once we identify a metal object, then we have to decide how we determine whether or not there is any kind of hazardous material.”

Although laws were not in place made by the Environmental Protection Agency until the mid-1970s, the burying of any material that could harm the soil is now prohibited by federal law.

Nowadays, you can’t just bury things on your property,” Wagner said. “In the past, it happened quite a bit, and our whole catch is it has to be some kind of hazardous material that is impacting the surrounding environment. It helps to have people tell us about specific areas. The more information we get, the more it helps us to come up with an attack plan about what areas to start with and what equipment to use.”

Allegations have been made of the burying of toxic heavy metals, construction equipment and other debris north of Parkside and west of Central avenues in the 1960s and 1970s. Allegations have also been made that Amerock dumped toxic substances into Kent Creek after the plant opened in 1956, continuing through the 1980s and as recently as this year. The plant is being cleaned up by the Denovo Properties, which specializes in cleaning up toxic sites in the United States and then selling them. Past requests to interview Denovo management have been unanswered.

We’re in the process of figuring out the best way to go about investigating that without causing disruption of the business they have going on in there,” Wagner said of looking for toxic materials that may be inside the plant. “We’re going to have to work with them to find out exactly where that was, what they have in there now and the best way to approach that. At some point, it’s going to depend on more of what we’re going to be able to get out of the files and compare them as related to what they did in the different areas of the building.”

If Amerock indeed dumped toxic waste into the creek from any or all of the five tubes that are still in place behind the factory, Wagner said his team has the technology to find the source and identify the type of toxic substances that could include dangerous heavy metals such as cyanide, chromium, nickel and zinc.

We would use the sediment around the creek to establish historic release,” Wagner said. “We’re going to look into first, whether or not we can find anything in the creek itself, and then, through our investigation of the plant, we’ll see if any of those are related to processes that took place within the building. We normally take several background samples so we can establish attribution. We take samples well upstream from where the facility is so we can rule out any other sources.”

Maggie Carson, spokesman for the IEPA, said: “Mark’s group does their investigation in accordance with (USPEA) Superfund regulations. That’s the Superfund process. It’s a little bit different than the state, so he has these notifications built into that system. To get on a Superfund list is a long and complex process. Mark is working on the early phases. He wants to be Superfund compliant as he works through it, should that eventuality bear out. The percentage of those that reach that high level of scrutiny is a pretty small percentage.”

The USEPA deemed the groundwater contamination in the area a Superfund Program site as it stepped in to pay for water hookups in the area. Once the origin has been determined, the remediation process will begin. USEPA Department of Land Project Manager Brad Benning told TRRT recently that the funds to hook up the 16 residents in that area not currently with city water will come from the Superfund Program.

If we can connect the well contamination to the Superfund project, then the state would go and start the cost recovery process,” Wagner said, noting the USEPA would be looking for remediation from the toxic waste violator or violators. As for remediation for toxic dumping around Amerock, the USEPA will handle that.

They’re separate situations,” Wagner said. “If we’re talking strictly Amerock, remediation would be in accordance with their (USEPA) guidelines. Any kind of cost recovery they would do. There are other options to avoid being listed on the Superfund list and being part of a cleanup mandated by the federal EPA.”

If a company is deemed responsible, the USEPA and IEPA will first let them clean it up on their own.

The responsible party is given every opportunity to step up to do Superfund-compliant cleanup,” Wagner said. “If we find that they do have releases that warrant cleanup, they have the option to do that voluntarily. They have the opportunity throughout the process, as we investigate them, to actually step up and do that cleanup on their own.”

Wagner also said the federal EPA will come in an emergency situation if necessary and “protect people as long as the process is going on.”

Carson added: “It’s to their benefit to do so rather than go through the legal process. It’s triple the cost. There is a penalty built into if we end up doing it and end up having to recover costs.”

Meantime, the IEPA is trying to determine the source of the groundwater contamination in the area, with possible remediation coming from the state district attorney’s office. The state IEPA team has found that the shallow groundwater underneath the homes runs from west to east, meaning the source would most likely come west of the neighborhood. The state and county have taken numerous rounds of samples from that area over the past four months.

(The IEPA lab) gave us tentative results, but they haven’t finalized them yet,” Wagner said. “There’s some quality assurance checks that they do before they go final on them to make sure those numbers aren’t going to change.”

The IEPA took samples on one more house on Johnston “outside our area of concern to confirm that we have the plume defined,” Wagner said. “We’re going to have some meetings based on those results that we got in and start looking at how to go about connecting that information to an actual source. We have a staff geologist that will make that call. After we get the information together, we’ll give him a chance to look through it, and then he’ll have to decide if there’s enough data there to go ahead or see if there are areas we need to go back on.”

TRRT learned that one possible source is the Mobil gas station on Auburn Street, a previous offender of a leaking underground storage tank.

They’re in our underground leaking storage tank program,” Wagner said. “Right now, they’re working with us on some release that they’ve had in the past. It’s an ongoing investigation. When we get data back from the lab, we will contact people we think are responsible. We have not identified a single source yet.”

Although the IEPA has put the groundwater investigation first, if there are possible violations currently seen by residents around Kent Creek from the plant, they should call the local IEPA office at (815) 987-7760.

There’s always the ability to call our field office so they can immediately send someone out to have a more timely response to it,” Wagner said. “They’re the actual ones who would be responsible for current activities in the building. That would be something we would follow up with our field office if we think they are in violation of anything currently.”

Possible violations can also be reported by contacting The Rock River Times at (815) 964-9767 or contact@rockrivertimes.com.

From the Dec. 21-27, 2011, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!