Friday, October 3, 2014

We Visit DePue, IL and a Superfund Site

In 1999, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formally added the DePue/New Jersey Zinc/Mobil Chemical Superfund Site to the National Priorities List. A superfund site is an area designated by the Federal Government as both abandoned and severely polluted. The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for cleaning up the site and holding the entities who caused the toxic pollution responsible for the damage. This superfund site is composed mainly of the by products of zinc smelting that occurred and accumulated over 80 years. We paddled directly South of Depue Lake. I wanted to meet with the key players in this tragedy. I called the Illinois EPA to try and set up a meeting with them. The IEPA was not as enthused about our interest as they could have been. I was unable to set up a meeting with anyone at the EPA. My contact at the IEPA suggested I reach out to the Mayor of Depue, Eric C. Bryant, because he, “loves talking about the site.” We found out that not only does he love to talk about the site, he has a wealth of knowledge and opinions about the clean-up process in Depue.

Mayor Bryant brought with him a couple maps which detailed the various “Operational Units (O.U.s),” (there are five) located within Depue. These O.U.s represent the individual waste sites left behind by the New Jersey Zinc Co., now the Horsehead Corporation, smelting plant which opened in 1903. Mobil Chemical, now Exxon Mobil, also had sites in Depue. CBS/Viacom is involved in this site as well. Yes the broadcast company. I have not been able to find out why. Some sites and stories say that CBS/Viacom bought out New Jersey Zinc. Others say that the New Zersey Zinc Co. owned the rights to Jurassic Park; part of that deal involved CBS/Viacom assuming responsibility over New Jersey Zinc. I have come across no clear reason as to why a television broadcast company would be involved or implicated in a contaminated Superfund site. 

The contaminants in these sites resulted from the poor handling of the products and by-products of zinc smelting. Remnants of zinc smelting can be used to create fertilizer among other things, because of this, a chemical processing plant was built on site to convert the zinc smelting by-products into fertilizer. Slag piles are condensed, solid-waste by-products of the smelting process which tend to be super heavy. Depue has a zinc slag pile which weighs in at 750,000 tons. That's the equivalent of 150,000 Asian elephants. Every time it rains contamination leeches from the pile into the soil. Particles from the pile blow into the yards, houses, and nostrils of the residents every time there are strong gusts of wind. Besides the slag pile, as if that wasn't enough, there are 100 plus acres of something known as a phosphogypsum stack. Ground water leeches contaminants out of the phosphogypsum stack and the zinc slag pile, especially when it rains. This ground water is directed through a drainage ditch, known as the south ditch, directly into Depue Lake.
Teresa Woodruff, Northwestern University Superfund Research Center in Reproductive Health Hazards director, has proposed a reproduction study to be conducted on Depue residents. This will be the first scientific study on the superfund site's health effects on people.  Studies have not been conducted because Depue is struggling financially simply to maintain litigation with CBS and Exxon Mobil. A lack of studies can not deny unusual occurrences such as paint chipping off of cars, the wells in town needing to be dug over 10,000 feet deep (that's just under 2 and a half miles down), and undeniably high cancer rates. The Horsehead Corporation has successfully buried the problem in money going towards lawyers and covering up the implication of their organization.

Depue Lake borders Depue to the South. Less a lake, more a suppository for contaminants. These contaminants have been pooling at the bottom of the lake, which then requires dredging if the town is to keep its nationally acclaimed, annual boat races up and running. Allowing the town to fester is not a just solution. The residents rely on this tourist-based stream of revenue. Dredging is not cheap. Dredging is not sustainable. Without manufacturing jobs to keep the population up, Depue has slowly drained of residents. That leaves the town with a dedicated and resilient population. Corporations took liberties with their waste; by doing so they took liberties with human rights. People who live in Depue deserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When slag heaps threaten to shorten lives, Corporations have sold off or taken away liberties, and the residents of Depue despair for the future. There must be drastic change; the entities responsible for this toxic waste must be held accountable for their mess.

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