Guest Column: The deal for the Vermilion

By Tom Lindblade
Illinois Paddling Council

In Illinois, on most of our rivers and streams, it is legal for a landowner who owns land on both sides of a river to close that river. We believe this is the result of a misinterpretation by the courts, but it is legal. Such closures almost never happened, until two years ago when the only significant white-water river in Illinois was closed by Buzzi Unicem, the Italian cement company that owns a mostly abandoned plant on the river, and a dam at the plant where several rafters have died over the years.

There had been another rafter death at the dam and another drowning upstream. Buzzi was afraid of additional liability, so they decided to permanently close the river. Much as we believe that all waters in the state should be public, the fact is that they had every legal right to do what they did. The Vermilion was closed indefinitely.

At this point, enter the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and its director Marc Miller. Director Miller believed that the Vermilion should be open to the public, and so he asked the IDNR’s lawyer to enter into lease negotiations with Buzzi. It took several months, during which time Buzzi’s lawyers made it clear the company reserved the right to cancel the lease at the first sign of increased liability for the company, and that the company sees the lease as an interim solution. A final solution would eliminate the dam, and would require two to four years of permitting and construction before it can be done.

There are many people in our community who for various reasons distrust the IDNR, but this is one time when our state government has gone far out of its way to be of service to the paddling community. IDNR agreed to put an exclusion zone around the dam and spend a significant amount of money eliminating hazards, preliminary to a more permanent solution that would provide the plant with necessary water, but eliminate the dam. Until then, the river would be open, but no one would be allowed near the dam or on Buzzi property, eliminating portages around the dam and Wildcat Rapid. (We have asked for reconsideration of allowing portages.) These are the terms Buzzi imposed. If all falls in place, the river will be opened this spring. Buzzi holds all the cards. We may not like it, but if we want the river open, we will have to live with it.

Much of the information in this editorial came from a meeting with IDNR personnel held on Jan. 6, 2012.

P.S. Letters thanking Director Miller, Lawyer Bob Mool, and Arlen Juhl, Office of water Resources, might be helpful.

From the Jan. 11-17, 2012, issue

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