HARTFORD, Ill. (KSDK) - A massive toxic cleanup is underway along Illinois Rte. 3 that homeowners fear threatens drinking water, crops, and the health of thousands of residents.
Worried viewers contacted 5 on Your Side investigator Leisa Zigman who started asking questions and was ultimately given rare access to the mountain of hazardous secrets just 15 miles northeast of St. Louis at the old Chemetco plant.
The ghosts of Chemetco haunt the 44 acres of toxic wasteland and the tons of black poison left behind.
"[Sigh] We've got several risks here," said federal EPA project manager Kevin Turner.
That concerns nearby residents like Linda Murray.
"I'm worried about the drinking water and kids playing in the yard and then it soaks into the ground and then it gets on our skin and then what? And what if we're breathing it from there, it affects us," she said.
From 1970 to 2001, Chemetco ran one of the largest copper smelters in the country raking in millions in profits with little regard for the environment. Its toxic legacy includes 800,000 tons of slag, which is the bi-product of the smelting or refining process.
"It's high in heavy metals. It is high in lead, high in zinc, high in copper," said Turner.
The slag piles cover 13 acres contaminating the aquifer below, the ground water, and nearby wetlands.
"In much of the slag, it would be considered ten times what is considered hazardous, "said Turner.
But one man's slag is another's profits. More on that in a moment. But first, the depths of the Chemetco's intentional contamination defy belief.
In 1996, the Illinois EPA discovered a secret pipe that illegally dumped toxic sludge into a neighborhood lake, for an estimated 10 years. State and Federal regulators have tested soil, groundwater, and the aquifer. All are contaminated on Chemtco's property, but so far, toxic levels of hazardous material have not been detected in residential areas.
But right next door to the superfund site is a farm growing soybeans and corn.
Tests show contaminants have migrated into the neighboring fields but the EPA insists no one is serving the corn at dinner. Turner says some of it becomes cattle feed but the majority produces bio fuels.
5 on Your Side consulted with an outside expert from Washington University about the potential public health risk. He said, even if the corn absorbed some of the lead that leached into the fields, it would diffuse from the roots and into the leaves. The kernels would have the protective husk around them.
As the cleanup increases, the greatest risk is to those on site. But on dry, windy days small particles could potentially be blown into neighborhoods.
"We will shut down the site and will use a liberal use of water to do dust suppression," said Turner.
Air monitors are going up along the perimeter go gage the dust levels. Turner said by this summer the mountain of slag will be noticeably smaller.
For homeowners like Linda Murray, the end of the Chemetco disgrace can't come soon enough.
"I want to see that they clean it up and our neighborhood is clean and the contaminated soil is carried away," said Murray.
The federal government indicted the Company's CEO Dennis Feron with criminally violating the federal Clean Water Act. In 2008, Feron fled the country and was placed on the EPA's "most wanted list." Years later, he struck a deal and agreed to pay a fine of $500,000 in restitution. The government dropped its charges against him.
In 2000, a federal court sentenced the plant manager Bruce Hendrickson, of Granite City, to nine months of home confinement and fined him $4,000. Kevin Youngman, a foreman received six months of home confinement and a $2,000 fine. Both pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act and conspiring with others to do so.
Gary Reed, and George J. Boud Jr., both maintenance supervisors at the company were sentenced to 6 months of home confinement and fined.
Paradigm Minerals & Environmental Services out of Hartford, Ill. will be the contractor on site. Paradigm will extract and refine the valuable metals while cleaning up the slag piles. Profits from the metals will be split between the company, creditors for Chemetco, and the EPA.
Turner says it will take five to 10 years to clean up the entire area.