Gov. Bruce Rauner has stepped into a years-long fight over dumping construction debris close to drinking-water supplies, an issue that’s pitted the city of Chicago against southwest suburban communities worried about possible contamination.
The Rauner administration is backing a bill in the Illinois Legislature to require groundwater testing near quarries that accept broken concrete, rock, brick, stone and dirt from construction sites.
The measure’s backers say it aims to protect nearby wells that provide water to communities, especially in Will County, where at least nine construction dumping sites would be affected.
The issue gained attention thanks to a public feud more than a decade ago between then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his father-in-law, then-Chicago Ald. Dick Mell, over a Joliet quarry owned by Frank Schmidt — Mell’s wife’s cousin — used as a dump site.
After the feud became public, two state laws were passed to regulate some of the dumping — neither of which settled the dispute over what environmental precautions are needed.
For years, the city of Chicago, quarry owners, construction companies and others have opposed groundwater testing. They say it isn’t needed because only “clean,” non-toxic construction debris, posing little threat to drinking water, is allowed in quarries, which charge far less for dumping than more heavily regulated landfills.
Will County officials disagree. They say monitoring what goes into the massive pits without testing the water is risky and that quarries should face at least some of the same environmental oversight that landfills do.
“It would cause folks to be more vigilant about what they let in,” says state Rep. Margo McDermed, R-Mokena, who’s sponsoring the legislation on behalf of Rauner.
The Republican governor’s office says Rauner is “supportive of clean water and protecting our groundwater resources.”
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, hasn’t taken a position on McDermed’s bill or a similar one sponsored by Rep. Emily McAsey, D-Lockport, according to his spokesman, Steve Brown.
The issue made news when Blagojevich — fearing he might get caught in a political maelstrom — shut down Schmidt’s Joliet quarry in 2005, saying he feared it was accepting banned materials.
Blagojevich publicized the move, trying to demonstrate independence from Mell — his father-in-law and political patron.
Mell blasted Blagojevich for grandstanding and questioned the governor’s fund-raising practices — a precursor to issues that led to Blagojevich’s conviction on federal corruption charges and imprisonment.
The alderman was pulled into a Will County lawsuit that alleged he was a secret co-owner of the Joliet site, which he denied. The suit was dismissed last year, according to Mell attorney Dennis Berkson and the plaintiff’s lawyer.
The Joliet site, now called Chicago Street CCDD, was taken over by a new owner in 2008, and Schmidt pleaded guilty years later on an unrelated federal tax-evasion charge.
Blagojevich pushed through a law that took effect in 2008, spelling out what can be dumped in quarries.
But quarry owners, arguing the rules were too restrictive, pushed for a change in the law, passed in 2010, allowing construction debris deemed to be non-toxic to be dumped in quarries, as well as landfills. It did not mandate groundwater testing around quarries.
“It smells to me,” Will County Board Speaker James Moustis says of opposition to groundwater testing. “What’s that tell you? They know they’re going to contaminate the water sooner or later.”
The Illinois Pollution Control Board has considered arguments for testing near quarries and ruled that it wasn’t necessary. That ruling is being challenged in court by Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
Brian Lansu, a lawyer for the Land Reclamation and Recycling Association, a lobbying group for the quarries, points to the pollution board’s ruling and says the testing “is not justified.”
Brett Chase is an investigator for the Better Government Association.