Sun-Times Editorial Board
Illinois does not need another case of rubble trouble.
Last week, the Associated Press reported that 80 percent of old Illinois quarries that allow the dumping of concrete and other demolition waste have higher-than-acceptable levels of toxins, according to state sampling results.
That’s a wake-up call. State authorities had better take action before we have an environmental disaster on our hands.
Spokesmen for industry argue that there is no reason for alarm because there is no sign of any health hazards — and Illinois has the strictest regulations in the nation for dumping “clean construction and demolition debris” at sites other than landfills. Road builders, construction companies and others who use the quarries say additional testing is unnecessary and too expensive.
But that overlooks a fundamental rule when it comes to the threat of environmental contamination: Always err on the side of caution. Once contaminants get into the environment, it is difficult and expensive — and sometimes impossible — to get them out. We should be bending over backward to keep our drinking water and the environment acceptably clean, not responding to a crisis.
Most waste is hauled off to landfills, which are capped with soil and designed with liners to prevent toxic material from fouling the air or leaching into groundwater. But an exception is made for construction material — lumber, bricks, broken concrete, etc. — that is considered “clean.” The exception — it can be dumped at a less sealed site — is made so that it does not fill up much-needed landfill space, and because it doesn’t generally present an environmental threat. Concrete is concrete.
But last spring, tests by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency found levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, atrazine and other heavy metals, pesticides and hazardous volatile organic compounds above permissible limits at 80 percent of the 92 Illinois quarries that accept clean construction debris. The former quarries, many of which are in Will County, often are directly above groundwater sources.
Dan Eichholz, executive director of the Illinois Association of Aggregate Producers, told the AP that the IEPA turned up no more contaminants than you’d get if you tested “clean soil from backyards all around Illinois.”
Sounds good, sure. But too often in the past authorities have ignored potential health risks until the cost of addressing them soared and people’s health was affected. Many Chicagoans still have raw memories of a pile of construction debris and tainted material that grew into “The Mountain” in West Garfield Park in the 1990s. Residents of Flint, Michigan, also learned the danger of ignoring potential health risks when lead from old pipes and fixtures contaminated their drinking water.
“This is a contaminated drinking water problem waiting to happen,” said Howard A. Learner, president and executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “There are sensible steps that should be taken at each of these sites.”
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed a lawsuit that now is before the Illinois Appellate Court seeking to require groundwater monitoring at quarries that accept construction debris, citing the risk of pollutants getting “directly into the water table.”
In the Legislature, a coalition of environmentalists, local officials, Madigan and others last spring blocked by one vote a law that would have eased liability and permitting requirements for quarry owners. But an environment-friendly bill filed by state Rep. Margo McDermed (R-Mokena) that would have required groundwater monitoring at the quarries never made it out of committee.
McDermed said the recent IEPA testing showed the methods used to monitor construction degree “were completely inadequate.”
It can cost five times as much to dispose of materials at a landfill as in a former quarry, which creates a big incentive to dump so-called clean construction debris in quarries. But Henry Henderson, Midwest director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, cautions that “clean” debris is an inexact label. Much of it comes from the demolition of old buildings, he said, and it can include such contaminants as metals and asbestos.
Moreover, tainted groundwater is particularly difficult to clean up up once it has been tainted, Henderson said, pointing out that many communities outside the Chicago area rely on groundwater for drinking water.
Dumping construction debris in old quarries is not a bad idea. But an independent agency should monitor the material brought to those sites and the groundwater around them.
Preventive medicine is always best.