For seven years, Wendy and Terry Greenrod complained to local and state officials that the two quarries-turned-landfills along the Fox River that bookend their LaSalle County home were taking in banned debris that could contaminate drinking wells.
Now, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is suing the operators of “clean landfills” in Sheridan, a small town 60 miles southwest of Chicago, saying in two lawsuits filed in May that for years they have accepted metals, plastics, batteries and other prohibited materials that can pollute soil and groundwater.
“It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” Terry Greenrod says of the quarries, a cheaper alternative to landfills that are allowed to accept only construction and demolition debris that are free of contaminants.
The lawsuit follows inspections by state environmental regulators who last year cited more than 70 quarries across Illinois, including some in the suburbs, for having high amounts of harmful chemicals and metals.
The Greenrods and other residents, along with Madigan, environmental groups and some lawmakers, say the only way to know whether those sites threaten drinking water is to test groundwater around the quarries.
But a move in the Illinois Legislature to mandate testing failed recently amid opposition from industry groups, quarry owners and road-building companies.
How safe the water is near these types of landfills has been the subject of debate for a decade. Madigan and authorities in Will County — which has nine such sites, more than any other county in Illinois — have pushed for water testing. After hearing from industry and environmental groups, the Illinois Pollution Control Board rejected mandatory groundwater testing around the dumps.
Madigan has appealed the board’s decision. That’s now pending before the Illinois Supreme Court.
Dozens of citations were issued last year after the state conducted soil tests. Among the violations, according to Illinois Environmental Protection Agency records and interviews:
• One quarry in Cook County — Vulcan Construction Materials in McCook — and two in Will County were found to have higher-than-allowed concentrations of mercury.
• Five sites in Cook, Kane, Kankakee, and McLean counties tested at higher-than-allowed levels of arsenic.
• A quarry in Kendall County had high levels of the weed killer Atrazine.
• A McLean County site tested high for lead concentration.
The two sites in Sheridan once were mined for sand and gravel for roads and buildings in Chicago. Now, they are supposed to take in only nontoxic broken concrete, bricks and stone, with the idea the land could someday be redeveloped.
So the pits — porous, deep holes — aren’t allowed to accept materials that could wash harmful chemicals and metals into the ground and eventually into sources of drinking water.
Branko Vardijan, the operator of the sites, wouldn’t comment.
Alec Messina, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s appointee to head the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, says he supports groundwater testing around quarries but is “trying to strike a balance.” Messina says he had hoped that business interests, environmental groups and legislators would have been able to agree on a compromise bill this year.
That didn’t happen. Madigan and environmentalists wanted groundwater testing.
“Quarry landfills do not have the appropriate safeguards in place to protect groundwater,” says Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council. “The failure to pass legislation this year that would require groundwater monitoring put Illinois communities at risk.”
Business groups argued it was too expensive. And the aggregate and road construction lobbies wanted higher limits for chemicals in the quarries.
Dan Eichholz, executive director of the Illinois Association of Aggregate Producers, says Illinois already has strong laws in place to protect water and that the Sheridan case shows that the attorney general and state EPA have the tools they need to deal with quarry owners who break the rules.
Will County officials want more accountability, with water testing one option.
“Everyone would be more prone to play by the rules if they think there’s some liability on their side,” says Brent Hassert, a former state representative and lobbyist for Will County.
“The big issue is the groundwater monitoring,” says state Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria, who chairs the Illinois Senate Environment and Conservation Committee. “We’re trying to figure out where it’s appropriate and where it’s not.”
Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, whose district includes the Sheridan sites, says groundwater monitoring should be part of any reform.
“I’m very frustrated,” Rezin says. “I didn’t anticipate how strong the pushback would be.”
The Sheridan sites’ operator also stands accused of illegally dumping material in a nearby stream, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which turned over that case to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in January.
“I want them to shut him down,” Wendy Greenrod says of Vardijan and his quarries. “I want them to make him clean it up.”
Brett Chase is a reporter for the Better Government Association.