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Urgent: Support the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign

The 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign is asking for your participation and financial support for this very important local environmental justice campaign.  Champaign County Health Care Consumers (CCHCC) is working with the residents and former residents of Champaign’s 5th & Hill neighborhood to take on this “David and Goliath” struggle to force AmerenIP to fully clean up its toxic waste that is in the soil and groundwater throughout the 5th & Hill neighborhood.

If you’ve ever seen the movie, Erin Brockovich, the situation at 5th & Hill will seem very familiar: a huge company is responsible for toxic waste that it has knowingly left behind to pollute and harm a low-income community suffering from unexplained illnesses and environmental problems. Add to this, however, the participation of local, state, and federal government in helping to keep affected neighborhood residents in the dark for more than 20 years. And then, when the time comes to stand up with the residents, the government bodies not only abdicated their responsibility to protect the public and environmental health of the neighborhood residents, but instead, worked feverishly to protect the huge company’s pocketbook.

From the moment residents discovered the truth about the toxic contamination polluting the soil and groundwater in their neighborhood, members of the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign have been demanding answers and a full clean-up, but they have been stonewalled by AmerenIP, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IL EPA; the agency that oversees the clean-up of the toxic site), and the City of Champaign. The residents of the 5th & Hill neighborhood are demanding a full clean-up of their neighborhood and their right to know about the contamination and possible health effects from long-term exposure to the toxic chemicals coming from the AmerenIP property.  

“AmerenIP and the IL EPA have been knowing about this for a long time and they never told us about it, even though we were living right on top of their toxic waste. They thought the lion was going to sleep forever. But now that we know about this, we’re not gonna stop until we get to the bottom of this!” – Ms. Betty Hobbs, 5th & Hill resident

The 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign is an intense and long-term campaign with many struggles along the way. Perhaps the most urgent struggle right now, however, is the fight to repeal a City of Champaign ordinance that lets AmerenIP leave toxic groundwater in place – groundwater that may be spreading into the residents’ homes and into the Boneyard Creek flowing through many different communities.

The 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign is calling on the Champaign City Council to protect the health and safety of its residents by repealing or amending the groundwater ordinance to ensure that AmerenIP fully cleans up the contaminated soil and groundwater.

Please read on to learn more about the 5th & Hill toxic site and the Campaign, and how you can participate in and help support the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign. You can sign a petition to call for the repeal of the City’s groundwater ordinance, order Yard Signs to show your support, make a contribution, and take other actions to help out!

Background on the Toxic Site at 5th & Hill Streets in Champaign
About the AmerenIP Toxic Site: The 3.5 acre lot at 5th Street and Hill Street in Champaign is a former manufactured gas plant site, which operated from 1887 until 1953. Gas was manufactured by heating coal and undergoing a process to remove coal tar and other impurities. The coal tar and other production wastes were left on the site until the closing of the plant. According to information provided by Illinois Power (now AmerenIP) in 1990, the lightweight chemical compounds found in coal tar, known as BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene), move easily through soil and groundwater, are toxic, and are associated with various health problems.  AmerenIP has registered this site, and 24 other sites like it, with the IL EPA under their Site Remediation Program. Although AmerenIP has voluntarily agreed to clean up the site, the extent of off-site contamination – contamination of neighbors’ properties and residences – has not been fully established and documented, nor have the health effects on residents or former residents of the neighborhood of possible long-term exposure to toxins. The extent of clean up efforts (called “site remediation”) must be based on an accurate study using current data of contaminated soil, groundwater, and toxic vapors, and the extent of the contamination is still to be determined.

AmerenIP’s own tests show that the highly toxic chemicals have spread from the toxic site into the surrounding residential properties and are present at high and dangerous concentrations. Government records indicate that AmerenIP, the IL EPA, and the City of Champaign have known about the toxic contamination for nearly 20 years – that’s 20 years longer than the neighborhood residents who have had to live in the contaminated neighborhood have known!

The 5th & Hill Neighborhood:  The toxic site is located in a predominantly low-income African-American community in northern Champaign. The 5th & Hill neighborhood has been historically neglected by the City of Champaign and suffers tremendous infrastructure problems, including poor drainage, open sewage in people’s back yards, and regular basement and ground flooding of the neighborhood. These problems alone are bad enough, but may also increase likelihood of exposure to contaminated groundwater and soil for neighborhood residents.  The attitude and behavior of AmerenIP, the IL EPA, and the Champaign City Council significantly contributes to the neglect of one of the oldest and poorest neighborhoods of Champaign.

About the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign  
CCHCC first began organizing the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign in December 2007. Since then, the Campaign has grown into an active, engaged and organized environmental justice campaign with tremendous leadership and participation by 5th & Hill residents and former residents. The goals of the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign include the following: a) To learn the extent and type of toxicity resulting from the AmerenIP former manufactured gas plant, including the contamination in residential areas; b) To ensure the rights and protect the health of any resident or former resident affected by exposure to toxins associated with the AmerenIP site; c) To assess and have appropriate input into the Site Remediation Plan for the 5th & Hill neighborhood, including remediation for residences and neighborhood areas; and d) To ensure neighborhood and community input into the future development plans for the site and neighborhood at 5th & Hill.

“I tell everybody that I talk to about what a great group we are working with. We had no clue about this problem in our neighborhood, and if CCHCC hadn’t gotten involved, we still wouldn’t have a clue. CCHCC is there to help us and guide us so that our neighborhood can stand up against AmerenIP and the IL EPA and get this toxic site cleaned up. We really appreciate all that CCHCC does and we just can’t praise CCHCC enough!” – Ms. Maggie Cook, 5th & Hill resident

Community organizing has already achieved victories! Hundreds of residents and former residents have been organized through community meetings and ongoing weekly door-to-door canvassing efforts by CCHCC volunteers, staff, and campaign members over the past 16 months. Through community organizing efforts, our Campaign has already achieved many great successes, including:
•    Generating the public pressure necessary to bring attention to the site so that AmerenIP agreed to begin the clean-up process sooner than their originally planned start date for 2010;
•    Demanding that AmerenIP conduct “off-site” testing into residential areas of the     neighborhood, where new test results show that toxic contamination has spread;
•    Alerting the public and the media that AmerenIP, with the blessing of the IL EPA and the help of the City of Champaign, will only conduct a partial clean-up, not a full clean-up of the toxic contamination (AmerenIP will only clean-up some of the contaminated soil, and none of the contaminated groundwater);
•    Organized a march last December to alert the community to toxic “hot spots” in the neighborhood where there are high levels of toxic contamination;
•    Conducting ongoing education and outreach to residents and former residents about AmerenIP’s  investigation into the toxic site and their plans for clean-up;
•    Keeping an almost constant presence in the media (through interviews, letters to the editor, radio appearances, and more) and making the toxic site a public issue.

yard sign

Former 5th & Hill resident Ms. Alvia Dyson stands outside her home on Hill Street last fall with her 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign yard sign. Read on to order your own yard sign and show your support for the campaign!

We must act quickly! AmerenIP doesn’t want to spend money to find all the toxic waste and do a full clean-up: The interests of the residents, former residents, and the community that is affected by the toxic contamination are pitted against AmerenIP’s financial interests. Unless AmerenIP is pushed to act in the interests of the public and the environment, AmerenIP is going to take the cheapest way out in order to not pay for a full investigation of the contamination and a full clean-up. It is very clear that only the community can be counted on to stand up and demand justice, since the IL EPA seems to be more intent on protecting AmerenIP’s pocket book than the health and well-being of our community, and the City of Champaign has undertaken efforts that actually legally let AmerenIP off the hook from having to clean up the toxic contaminated groundwater. Therefore, the major community organizing initiatives of the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign, for which we seek your support and involvement, are the following:

•    Work to force AmerenIP and IL EPA to identify the full extent of the toxic contamination in the neighborhood and surrounding community – AmerenIP’s own data show that they have not yet  established a “clean” boundary of negative tests to show where the contamination ends. If the toxic contamination is not found, it will be left to continue to poison and pollute the community.

•    Demand a full clean-up of the toxic contamination. AmerenIP’s clean-up plan ONLY involves cleaning up some of the soil on the AmerenIP property, not the residential properties where contamination is known to exist. Also, AmerenIP ONLY plans to partially clean-up contaminated soil, while leaving the contaminated groundwater in place, unaddressed. Shockingly, the IL EPA has approved this plan.

•    Demand that the City of Champaign repeal a “groundwater” ordinance that serves no other purpose  than to let AmerenIP (or any polluting company) off the hook for cleaning up contaminated groundwater. This ordinance was crafted by the City in collaboration with the IL EPA. If the ordinance is repealed, then the IL EPA will have to force AmerenIP to come up with a real clean-up plan for addressing the toxic contaminated groundwater.

AmerenIP’s Clean-Up Plan: Environmental Injustice (approved by IL EPA and the City)
All indications are that AmerenIP will not be fully and adequately cleaning up the toxic contamination that has spread throughout the neighborhood.  The only clean-up plan that AmerenIP has released is the remediation of its property, while residents may continue to be exposed to contamination in their homes and on the properties where their children play as they wait for the day when (or if) AmerenIP develops an off-site clean-up plan for the entire neighborhood.  Unfortunately, the IL EPA seems less than eager to stand with the residents to demand and require AmerenIP to conduct extensive testing of neighborhood properties in order to identify the full extent of the contamination. The US EPA has abdicated its oversight to the IL EPA (but our Campaign is working to bring back the US EPA’s involvement). Furthermore, AmerenIP and the IL EPA have persistently denied any severe or hazardous health effects from long-term exposure to the contamination as residents and former residents continue to express their fears and concerns that unexplained and far too often fatal illnesses afflict the 5th & Hill neighborhood.  The residents’ concerns are not unfounded or irrational – the same substances spreading from the AmerenIP toxic site have been linked to the deaths and illnesses of hundreds of children and adults around the country, including people right here in Illinois.

“AmerenIP and the IL EPA need to tell us the truth! People’s lives are at stake. It’s scary when we see these big machines rolling in and that huge structure that they’re building on the site for the clean-up. The IL EPA has refused to meet with us to tell us what’s going on in our neighborhood and hear our concerns and answer our questions. They need to know that residents are organized and we are going to make sure that they clean up our neighborhood!” – Ms. Simone Ford, 5th & Hill resident

These evasive and damaging tactics are almost expected from a corporation such as AmerenIP who is likely going to look out for their best (financial) interests during the remediation process.  However, even more shocking is how little our taxpayer-funded government bodies – the IL EPA and the City of Champaign – seem to care about holding AmerenIP accountable for fully cleaning up the contaminated soil and groundwater that they are responsible for inflicting on this neighborhood.  In fact, the Champaign City Council, with the support of the IL EPA, passed an ordinance which saves AmerenIP millions of dollars by allowing
them to leave contaminated groundwater in the ground, putting residents further at risk for exposure to toxic vapors that are emitted from the contaminated groundwater.  Sadly, the City of Champaign and the IL EPA care more about saving AmerenIP money than protecting the people and environment that they are funded (by us) to serve.

The City of Champaign’s Bogus “Groundwater Ordinance” Protects Polluters – Must be repealed!
About the City of Champaign’s “Groundwater Ordinance” – A legal sleight of hand that offers no protection (except to AmerenIP’s pocket book): The ordinance passed by the Champaign City Council in June 2007 is a “groundwater ordinance” that prohibits Champaign residents from drilling private water wells for drinking purposes, supposedly in an effort to prevent exposure to toxic chemicals from contaminated sites such as the AmerenIP toxic site in the 5th & Hill neighborhood.  However, the real purpose of the ordinance is not to prohibit residents from drilling private water wells – in fact, a 20 year-old ordinance already prohibits residents who are served by public water supplies from drilling private water wells.  In other words, if the groundwater ordinance were repealed today, City residents would still be prohibited from drilling private wells.

The ONLY purpose of the City’s 2007 groundwater ordinance is to let polluting companies off the hook for having to clean up contaminated groundwater (this is a City-wide ordinance, so any polluter can benefit from this ordinance, if they choose to use it). The City’s documents and those of the IL EPA make it very clear that the purpose of this ordinance is to save corporations money and time by letting them leave contaminated groundwater in place, unremediated.

This new groundwater ordinance is actually known, under the IL EPA, as an “institutional control” ordinance that is made available to polluting corporations so that, rather than cleaning-up or containing toxic contamination, these corporations can use “legal mechanisms” to limit residents’ contact with toxic chemicals. Under the IL EPA’s site remediation program, whenever local governments enact these ordinances, polluting corporations can latch onto these ordinances and use them as their way of “remediating” or “addressing” contamination. The pretense is that a legal prohibition at the City level will somehow prevent or limit residents’ exposure to contaminated groundwater by prohibiting them from drinking the groundwater. But the facts of the matter are that: a) residents in the 5th & Hill neighborhood do not own or operate private water wells and have no intention of drinking the toxic groundwater, and are in fact already prohibited (by the 20 year old City ordinance) from drilling private wells; and b) the residents’ and community’s risk of exposure to the toxic groundwater is not primarily from ingestion (drinking) but from inhalation of the vapors that are emitted from the groundwater and that travel up through the soil into the places where people live.

The City of Champaign should NOT be responsible for regulating toxic chemicals! AmerenIP is using this ordinance, under the approval of the IL EPA, to avoid cleaning up the contaminated groundwater around the toxic site, stating that residents are safe from exposure to the contamination because they cannot drink the groundwater. The only way that AmerenIP can rely on this “institutional control” ordinance is if it stays “on the books.”  By allowing the ordinance to stay on the books, the City of Champaign is letting the IL EPA off the hook for having to force AmerenIP to come up with a real clean-up plan for the toxic groundwater, and is taking on the responsibility for regulating toxic chemicals in groundwater in the City of Champaign.  The City of Champaign does not have the expertise to regulate toxic chemicals – there is no toxicologist on staff, and the City routinely claims that 5th & Hill residents need to “trust the experts at the IL EPA.” If the City of Champaign were to repeal or amend this ordinance so that it did not apply to the 5th & Hill area, the IL EPA would have to force AmerenIP to come up with another strategy for addressing the toxic groundwater.

What’s At Stake? The lives and health of 5th & Hill residents, and beyond:  What AmerenIP, the IL EPA, and the Champaign City Council fail to recognize or admit is that residents are not protected from the contaminated groundwater and if the groundwater is not cleaned up they will continue to be at risk for exposure to the toxic substances and the possible health effects linked to these substances.  Every year, residents of the 5th & Hill neighborhood experience massive flooding in their homes, basements, and the yards where their children play.  This regular flooding allows contamination from the surrounding soil and groundwater to continually seep into people’s basements and homes, exposing residents to toxic vapors and physical contact with the contaminated flood water.

But the danger does not stop at the 5th & Hill neighborhood.  Located just a few blocks from the toxic site, the Boneyard Creek flows through miles of Champaign-Urbana, the University of Illinois campus, and on to communities throughout Champaign and Vermillion County, eventually connecting to several major rivers in East Central Illinois.  If the City of Champaign allows AmerenIP to get away with leaving the contaminated groundwater in place, the City is potentially putting thousands of residents at risk for exposure to contamination flowing with the groundwater and into the Boneyard Creek.  

The City of Champaign must be made to repeal its “groundwater ordinance!”  It is fairly obvious that the Champaign City Council lacks the necessary expertise to make a decision that affects the environmental and public health of thousands of people, not to the mention the lives of hundreds of 5th & Hill neighborhood residents.  We cannot let AmerenIP get away with doing half of a clean-up by relying on an unnecessary City ordinance with a sole purpose of saving the corporation millions of dollars while toxic waste continues to flow under and into people’s homes for years to come.  The health of 5th & Hill neighborhood residents should be the top priority, no matter what the cost, and to ensure their health, the contaminated groundwater must be cleaned up.  Unfortunately, the IL EPA and the Champaign City Council are standing by their ordinance and protecting AmerenIP, and that is simply unacceptable.

Therefore, we are calling on the Champaign City Council to repeal or amend the groundwater ordinance, and we need your help!

Take Action!  The 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign needs your support!

“We all need to get involved because of the young people coming up. Who knows how these toxic chemicals might be affecting them?  This is our neighborhood and we need to get it cleaned up. And it’s not just about the people who live here now – if you used to stay here before, your family might be affected, too. We need to reach everyone who has stayed in this neighborhood to get together and speak out to get this site cleaned up all the way.” – Mr. M. D. Pelmore, 5th & Hill resident

The Campaign is focusing its current efforts on ensuring the full clean-up of the toxic site and the residential properties in the 5th & Hill neighborhood, which should include both the contaminated soil and groundwater. This involves putting pressure on the IL EPA and the Champaign City Council to force AmerenIP to either clean up the groundwater or find another way to address the contamination rather than relying on the do-nothing City ordinance.  Here are several actions you can take to help make this happen:

  • Add your name to a petition calling for the repeal of the City’s ordinance: Add your name to a petition calling on the Champaign City Council to repeal or amend the ordinance that lets AmerenIP off the hook for cleaning up contaminated groundwater in the 5th & Hill neighborhood. Enough of your names would send a strong message to the City of Champaign that we are not going to stay silent as an unnecessary ordinance puts hundreds, if not millions, of people at risk while allowing AmerenIP to save millions of dollars.  Click here to add your name to the petition.
  • Order a Yard Sign: The 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign now has yard signs available to residents and non-residents that you can display to show your support for this struggle.  The yard signs say: “Residents deserve a healthy neighborhood! CLEAN UP TOXIC WASTE at 5th & Hill!”  These professionally-printed yard signs are durable and weatherproof, and can be displayed on your front yard or in your window.  Order a yard sign by calling us at (217) 352-6533 or emailing
  • Sign up to receive 5th & Hill action alerts! You can sign up to receive 5th & Hill action alerts to let you know of other actions you can take or of upcoming events in which you can participate. Click here to sign up.
  • Make a financial contribution: CCHCC provides the community organizing support to carry on this campaign, but we need your help in order to sustain this struggle for as long as it takes. We need your involvement, and we need your financial support. The costs for carrying out a campaign like this involve staff time for organizing and research, materials for outreach and staying in touch with residents and former residents (flyers, letters, etc.), postage, phone calls, Yard Signs, and more. Click here to make a donation!

We appreciate all of your time and commitment, and your continued support. On behalf of the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign and the struggle for environmental justice, thank you!

“It means a whole lot to us that CCHCC has stepped in to help us. We appreciate having someone working for our benefit because we know that AmerenIP and the IL EPA don’t care about us. But we are gonna keep fighting and we won’t stop until we know that our neighborhood is cleaned up all the way and our families are safe.” – Ms. Betty Hobbs, 5th & Hill resident


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