Published: Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Frustrated by a Superfund cleanup that has dragged on for nearly two decades, local activists of a small village in central Illinois today launched a campaign aimed at two mega-corporations -- Exxon Mobil Corp. and CBS Corp. -- as well as the state's EPA.
Citizens of the Village of DePue, bolstered by the pro bono work of a professor at Northwestern University Law School, say the companies have shirked their responsibility to clean up the 950-acre site loaded with toxic heavy metals that have contaminated the village's lake, water and soil for 17 years.
The fight is a David-versus-Goliath struggle as DePue, with its 1,800 residents, takes on two of the country's largest corporations, said Eric Bryant, the village's president. But Bryant said the community is tired of the contamination that is the result of 80 years of zinc smelting and fertilizer production at two facilities on the local lake.
"Responsible parties will argue that there's been stuff done," Bryant told Greenwire, "but there's been no cleanup really that's amounted to anything to protect the health and environment of the community."
Exxon Mobil and CBS's ownership of the site is a complicated story. Originally, Mineral Point Zinc Co. of Wisconsin began zinc smelting at the facility in 1905 to make automobile products. The plant was taken over by the New Jersey Zinc Co. three decades later and then again by Gulf & Western Inc. another three decades after that. That company eventually acquired Paramount Pictures Corp., which was then obtained by Viacom Inc. CBS obtained responsibility for the cleanup when it split with the media mega-corporation in 2005.
Mobil Mining and Minerals Co., which became part of Exxon Mobil, purchased the fertilizer operation from Gulf & Western in the 1970s.
The companies nevertheless say they remain dedicated to remediating the site and note that they have fulfilled the requirements of a 1995 consent decree. Further, said Exxon Mobil spokeswoman Claire Hassett, the companies have invested $40 million in the cleanup thus far.
"We will continue to meet our responsibilities to remediate the site," Hassett said. "In addition, Exxon Mobil is committed to supporting the broader needs of the community through our support of the DePue school system, where we are helping to advance test scores and math and science education."
But the corporations' plans for the site are part of the problem, say the local residents. They will unveil the campaign -- along with an online map that shows the extent of the contamination -- today at a public meeting. And they point to a recent letter from Illinois EPA to state legislators that they say indicates support for Exxon Mobil and CBS's cleanup proposal that would leave a large pile of zinc waste -- or slag -- in place instead of removing it.
"The companies," said Nancy Loeb of Northwestern University Law School and the village's lawyer, "spent millions of dollars on consultants in an attempt to show that this Superfund site poses no significant risks, and they delivered a superficial plan that barely touches many of the contaminated areas, leaves the slag pile and other waste in place, does nothing to stop contamination from seeping into the groundwater, and leaves backyards, playgrounds and Lake DePue without real remediation."
Further, Loeb also criticized how the companies calculated risk, arguing that they looked at individual exposures instead of aggregate exposures that more accurately represent the experiences of the village residents.
Illinois EPA, however, said the citizens' concerns are misplaced.
"IEPA agrees that the current plans are insufficient," the agency's spokeswoman, Maggie Carson, said.
Carson noted that the consent order allows "presumptive remedies," which allow the companies to develop their plans, but added that "at this point we are still in the evaluation stage."
Bryant noted that Illinois EPA has been better in recent years at forcing Exxon Mobil and CBS to move forward but added that time is running out. The site is riddled with carcinogens and other toxins, including lead, arsenic and cadmium.
He said there have been nine cases of multiple sclerosis in the small village and countless cases of cancer -- though it is hard to say whether the environmental factors led directly to those diseases.
"People here are tired of Exxon Mobil and CBS earning record profits while jeopardizing the health and well-being of the children, families and wildlife in DePue," said Keith Garcia, a science teacher at DePue High School. Garcia's class sampled soil and water to document pollutant concentrations for the campaign.
Bryant added that he hopes the campaign will shed light on what residents believe are the corporations' dilatory tactics.
"They can hide behind the Superfund process," Bryant said, "but the bottom line is there is a contaminated lake here, a terrific natural resource, that is going to be destroyed unless someone steps up and does the right thing."