Heavy metals found under Northwest Community Center land; EPA probe continues


By Richard S. GubbeContributing Writer The investigation into the grounds around the Northwest Community Center (NWCC) on Rockford’s northwest side has concluded, with the results of a scan showing the area contains metals consistent with a common dump. The investigation fell short of what the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) had stated it would conduct, leaving out areas of concern between the NWCC and Searles Park in the areas north and south of Kent Creek.The use of a metal detection machine and a GPS tracking system around the NWCC came as part of the investigation into toxic waste dumping north and west of the Amerock plant at 4000 Auburn St. at Central Avenue.The information obtained came by way of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request made by The Rock River Times as part of its investigation into toxic dumping and groundwater contamination in the area around the former hardware manufacturing plant.“The determination of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has reviewed historic air photos of the former Amerock complex and found multiple disturbed areas west and northwest of the plant,” IEPA lead investigator Mark Wagner released in a statement to TRRT this week. “Anecdotal information from former residences (sic) of the area suggests that these areas may have been used by Amerock as disposal areas and possibly by the local community as an open dump.”The IEPA is investigating the area around Amerock amid accusations that 55-gallon drums of discarded toxic substances were buried in an area north of the plant. Former employees and current and former residents have alleged drums were buried in what was then a swamp north of Kent Creek. Some of those same residents pointed to the area around the NWCC as an unregulated “city dump.”The investigation has not included the area around the Mel Anderson Memorial Bike Path or the areas north of the creek and south of Searles Park. Tree samplings in the affected area. (Photo by Richard S. Gubbe)

By Richard S. Gubbe
Contributing Writer 

The state agency began its investigation into groundwater contamination last fall and concluded that benzene had leaked into the well water system in the area west of Amerock. The IEPA determined the groundwater was polluted by leaking underground gas storage tanks west of the area. Local residents on well water in that area have been converted to City of Rockford water. 

After the groundwater investigation began to draw down, the focus then shifted to allegations of land contamination from discarded chemical drums used to plate hardware in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. 

On a map sent to TRRT as part of the FOIA request, a comment read: “There were anomalies in the area. To date the areas surveyed with the metal detector just south of Kent Creek do not appear to have been used as drum disposal areas.”  

Wagner said of the drums: “We weren’t looking at how deep but whether they were there, yes or no. That’s what our machine was geared to do.” 

The “urban metal objects” noted on the map in the survey included “fences, sign posts, light posts, sewer covers, stormwater drains and scrap metal.” 

Jim Peterson, executive director of the NWCC, said he received a map from the IEPA that did not have the same language on the map that was sent to TRRT. 

Our map didn’t say anything about that,” Peterson said about the heavy metals underground. “We’re in possession of a map and we will look into it. That’s not on the copy of the map I got. We’ll look into it. The map I got didn’t say anything about lamp posts or signs. Maybe there’s another map that I need to get my hands on. If there is dangerous items out there, of course we’ll take care of them. We wouldn’t leave dangerous items lying about. If there are items out there that are dangerous or could cause harm to somebody, of course we will take care of that. We will remove those.” 

Peterson acknowledged the land did house a dump before his tenure began. 

Before I became director, there was a director in the 1980s who allowed dumping on the site,” Peterson said. “We cleaned most of the items up. We cleaned most of that up. I would characterize it as a city dump.” 

Investigators from the IEPA told TRRT last October that the investigation into toxic drum dumping would take place where the allegation had been made of toxic drums north of Kent Creek. The NWCC sits south of Kent Creek.  

After the release of the information, Wagner was interviewed by TRRT. 

This was strictly a metal detector survey to see if there were any areas to come back to sample,” Wagner said. “That will be a decision that’s made internally based on the information that we have. One of the areas that we’re really concerned about is the lagoon area up in the (Rockford) Park District area.” 

Wagner said the IEPA team tried to collect data from the area north of the creek, but had problems navigating their equipment where tree samplings were cut down in the area. Wagner said he made an attempt to take the metal detector into the field north of Kent Creek, but he said he ran into difficulties. 

We’ve been in the field, but it was inconclusive due to the terrain,” Wagner said. “Our machine wasn’t able to move across where they cut down the tree samplings. We had some difficulties in that terrain. We were in that area, but due to the way the trees were chopped, it was hanging up on the undercarriage of the machine.”  

Wagner said he was confused as to whether he was in the right area that was pointed out when he met with a contingent of reporters and witnesses back in October. 

I am somewhat confused about the area off the bike path,” Wagner said. He said the use of historic photos from 1964 and 1974 of the area have been helpful. Pictured on historic photos is a lagoon northeast of the creek that borders the land that is Searles Park. 

We had problems in the clearing to the north. We think we’ve come up with a way to find that in those trees,” Wagner said of the lagoon. “We had to take a step back and make sure we were in the right area.” 

I apologize,” Wagner said of the confusion. “I thought I understood where they were initially, but we’re not on the same page there. I don’t think it will be a problem to go back with a metal detector in that area. We definitely want to fully characterize any area where there is potentially waste material from Amerock as far as this investigation, especially in and around the Park District area where people have access to. I don’t think that will be a problem at all. I don’t think that will be out of line for my supervisor to do.” 

Tom Crause, the manager of the office of site evaluation, Bureau of Land of the EPA, told TRRT in an exclusive interview last week that the investigation will continue.  

Mark has been working real diligently, and we know it needs follow-up investigation,” Crause, who is Wagner’s supervisor, said. “It certainly is our intention to conduct further investigation. The issue here is the EM-61 is a cart-mounted metal detector. It was my discussion that he just was not able to drag the EM-61 into the area of question. We fully intend to get out there in the next couple months and do pretty extensive investigation.”  

When pressed about why the investigation of the drums included a look into the NWCC property first when the allegations of toxic drum dumping were on Rockford Park District land, Crause appeared bristled. 

We’re not walking away from this in any stretch of the investigation,” he said. “There are no politics involved in any of this investigation. No one in the local or state government has tried to influence this in any way. No one has attempted to influence this investigation.” 

Wagner said that despite the confusion, he would visit the area again on Thursday, July 26, to plan another contra map metal detection foray into the area. 

As it turns out, when we went up to do that metal detector survey, we had that tied to our GPS (global positioning system),” Wagner said. “We did one of the open areas on the north side of the Park District, and when we started to plot that data, we realized that the lagoon and the disturbed areas we found out was further south in within the trees themselves, and the lagoon is in the trees of the forest preserve. That presents us with a problem with the GPS. It doesn’t work when you lose line of sight with the overhead satellite. We’ve come up with a way to locate where that lagoon was historically and go back there.” 

The area in question begins north of Kent Creek and runs north by northeast to Searles Park and the businesses that border Central Avenue. 

I walked in through those trees and found an area there seems to be a small depression,” Wagner said. “We will utilize our GPS to locate that exact location. That’s where the accusations of people swimming and the dumping were located at those lagoons. 

I’ve been told that one of our priorities is to go up and locate this lagoon and meeting with a map to place some more dots on it and pinpoint locations that have to be metal detected,” Wagner added.  

The IEPA also released a statement that read as follows:  

In order to investigate other allegations of releases of chemicals or process waste on or near the old Amerock facility, the Illinois EPA plans to complete its investigation in October 2012, and will conduct the following investigative activities: 

Collect sediment samples from Kent Creek. 

Collect soil samples in the area of the ball fields on the north side of the Northwest Community Center property, on the old Amerock facility, and in the area of alleged wastes disposal north of Kent Creek. 

Collect groundwater samples on the old Amerock property, in an alleged waste disposal area north of Kent Creek, and on Northwest Community Center property. 

From the July 25-31, 2012, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!