Ameren plans cleanup under Springfield
Glacial wash, coal tar and Abraham Lincoln might sound like the makings of offbeat science fiction.
But there are scientific and historical elements of each in a $4 million project scheduled to start next month for the cleanup of toxic residue left deep beneath a section of downtown Springfield by a coal-gasification plant that helped light the city in the time of Lincoln.
“We want the public to know we’re going to be tearing down a couple of buildings and putting up a couple of tents,” Steven Burns, a consulting environmental engineer for Ameren Corp., said Wednesday.
The utility just completed three years of testing at the site of the plant at First and Washington streets. Subject to final approval by state environmental officials, cleanup work should begin in a few weeks and take about a year.
An open house to explain the project to the public is planned before the start of the major work in August .
To make a long scientific story short — as in dating to a time when 85 percent of Illinois was covered by glaciers — the shutdown of a plant that converted coal to gas for streetlights and cooking stoves from 1855 to 1925 left behind holding tanks and underground coal-tar wells.
Gradually in the past eight decades, and thanks to permeable “glacial gravel,” coal tar has seeped into the soil and water at the site. While the site is not considered a health or environmental threat by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, it will be cleaned up as part of a voluntary program to contain the old fields.
“There is coal tar at 17 1/2 feet to 24 1/2 feet at the deepest point,” said Burns, who is manager for the Springfield project.
The area is generally in the 100 and 200 blocks of West Washington Street.
Ameren purchased buildings on the southwest and northwest corners of First and Washington in preparation for the work. The smaller building on the southwest corner and the east section of the building on the northwest will be demolished.
Contamination also was found beneath Washington Street, but Burns said it is deep enough that it is considered “capped,” and tearing up the street will not be necessary.
Stan Black of the state EPA said there is some evidence tar has seeped into storm sewers and groundwater. But he pointed out the city of Springfield prohibits wells, and the cleanup should stop any additional migration.
“This was produced when Lincoln walked the streets. I like to say it provided light for Lincoln’s home and Lincoln’s law office,” Black said. “There’s just no evidence that it is a threat to public health or the environment.”
Black anticipates the state will approve Ameren’s cleanup plan in time for work to begin next month. Ameren plans to erect large tents at the excavation sites and to monitor air quality.
Illinois State Board of Education employee Kathy Cunningham has worked across the street from the site for 30 years, but said she was not aware of the contamination until test drilling began the last few months.
The only effect up to now has been a letter advising ISBE employees they are about to lose some parking spaces, she said.
“They told us we’d lose our parking spaces for eight months, and I just assumed that (the cleanup) was what it was,” Cunningham said while on a break. The state has arranged for other parking spaces.
Each of the now-vacant buildings to be demolished most recently housed state offices and storage. Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris said no plans have been made for the sites once the cleanup work is finished.
“We’re now in the remediation phase, and when that’s completed, real estate will consider all the options,” he said.
Tim Landis can be reached at (217) 788-1536 or email@example.com.
-Springfield Gas Light Co., formed in 1854, built a coal-gasification plant at First and Washington streets to produce gas for streetlights, cooking and heating. The plant remained in operation, including through a series of ownership changes, from 1855 to 1925, when natural gas came into use.
-The former Central Illinois Light Co. acquired the site in 1933. Ameren Corp. acquired CILCO, and responsibility for site cleanup, in 2003.
What is coal tar?
-Gasification plants produced gas by heating coal and oil. Gas was stored in holding tanks and the resulting coal-tar residue in tar wells. Exposure to coal tar has been linked to increased risk of cancer and other health problems.
-There are 129 sites in Illinois, including 40 in AmerenCILCO, AmerenCIPS and AmerenIP territories in Illinois; 49 sites, including a dozen Ameren locations, that have been cleaned up.
-Estimated cost: $4 million, including testing and building purchases. A special charge estimated by the state at less than $1 on monthly AmerenCILCO gas bills pays for the work (gas companies are allowed to include the charge for cleanup projects, subject to state approval).
-Cleanup of four gas-holding tanks and seven tar wells is expected to take about a year in three phases: 1. Excavation inside a vacant building at the northwest corner of First and Washington. 2. Demolition and excavation on the southwest corner of the intersection. 3. Demolition and excavation on the east side of the first building. The smaller, west side of the structure will remain.
-Contaminants will be shipped to a special landfill for toxic chemicals in Indiana.
Sources: Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and Ameren Corp.