Demolition-debris debate simmers as Supreme Court decides
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — The roiling debate over protecting underground drinking water around rock quarries used for disposing of demolition debris has quieted for a few months as the Illinois Supreme Court decides whether the state should force landowners to drill wells for groundwater monitoring.
State and Will County officials argue that soil, concrete, asphalt and rock left from demolition have enough heavy metals and volatile chemicals in them that disposal in spent quarries — often dug out below the water table — poses a risk if those chemicals mix with groundwater.
They want the Supreme Court to order revised rules requiring testing, but after hearing oral arguments last week, there won’t be a decision until late spring.
For decades, quarries mined for rock or sand have been “reclaimed” by backfilling them with the leftovers of redevelopment. Environmental protection rules followed, the latest of which were set down by the Illinois Pollution Control Board in 2012, but they didn’t include groundwater monitoring. Critics told the court the decision was illegally arbitrary and capricious inasmuch as the board, charged with protecting Illinois drinking water, failed to consider an important aspect of the problem.
“The only way to protect the groundwater is to monitor the groundwater,” Marie Quinlivan Czech, attorney for Will County, told the court in oral argument. “They have concluded, without basis whatsoever, that there’s no harm to the groundwater.”
What’s deposited is called “clean construction or demolition debris.” The idea is that harmless materials can be used to refill hollowed-out quarries, reclaiming land for development while sparing the cost in travel to and tipping fees at sanitary landfills, a more expensive option because of tougher environmental regulations.
The Pollution Control Board deemed groundwater monitoring unnecessary . The construction industry believes it to be cost-prohibitive , although the two sides differ greatly on the price tag for sinking wells and annual testing.
Dan Eichholz, president of the Illinois Association of Aggregate Producers, notes that perception is a problem. People don’t understand that what’s dumped primarily is soil, which in Illinois compacts quickly as clay, he said.
“People picture these clean-fill sites as landfills and they’re very, very different,” Eichholz said. “The material coming in has to be limited to inert clean materials, and these sites, filled mostly with clay, repeatedly compacted by tractors, it’s not permeable. Very little concrete or asphalt are going to these sites because it’s economically feasible to recycle it and use it in other construction materials.”
Eichholz argues groundwater monitoring would put many sites out of business. He said the Illinois rules are the nation’s toughest. An engineer must sign off that a load came from a site that contained no hazardous waste. Each load arriving at a quarry is visually inspected and checked with an electronic wand that can detect organic chemicals. Owners may refuse loads.
Nonetheless, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which is pressing for monitoring, found a different story when it flash-tested sites in 2017 . The Associated Press reported that the testing found that four in five debris sites showed excessive levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, atrazine and other heavy metals and pesticides, as well as volatile organic compounds linked to health problems such as cancer.
Water-monitoring advocates pounced, arguing that the hazards found would migrate to groundwater in places such as limestone-rich Will County, home to at least nine quarry sites and where 70 percent of residents get potable water from underground aquifers.
But critics faulted the IEPA for doing a basic test that scientific protocol would say required follow-up testing. They added that what were found were only traces of naturally occurring metals, not unlike what could be unearthed in any residential backyard.
Even before Marie Tipsord, attorney for the Illinois Pollution Control Board, outlined the slate of public hearings it conducted, the gathering of public comments and the questioning of witnesses, Justice Mary Jane Theis was unconvinced the decision to exclude groundwater monitoring was arbitrary or capricious.
“The board made a determination that there was no evidence in the record that non-contaminated material could in fact contaminate the water so therefore, they made a choice to strengthen the regulations to ensure the material that is brought in is not contaminated,” she said.
“That does not mean that the material doesn’t contain some contaminants,” responded assistant attorney general Carl Elitz, representing the state. “The board’s own rules recognize that things like lead, and even arsenic and DDT can be in this soil in low levels and the material is still treated as uncontaminated.”
Rep. Margo McDermed of Mokena, a Will County Republican, said she would re-introduce legislation to require groundwater monitoring, as she has done unsuccessfully the past two years, but did not plan to push it until hearing the high court’s decision.
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