A grandmother's detective work led to Greenup's toxic cleanup

Soon, as many as 40 trucks a day will begin roaring past Linda Niccum's house in this pleasantly rural town surrounded by corn and soybean fields. While the prospect of all that activity might upset many homeowners, Mrs. Niccum couldn't be happier about it. It marks the fulfillment of a dream she and her family and neighbors have been fighting for most of the last six years.

The trucks will be hauling away sludge and waste oil from a one-time recycling center across the street that is widely regarded as Illinois's most highly toxic dump site and is one of the top sites on the national priority list of the federal Superfund cleanup program.

The oil and acids here in 10 tall, red tanks, and a covered large pit now protected by a chain-link fence and ''keep out'' signs, contain an unusually high concentration of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). During heavy rains, the material often overflowed onto nearby fields and into the Embarrass River, spurring concern about possible ground-water contamination.

''In the beginning we were called a bunch of gripers, and we couldn't get the town board, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), or anybody to listen to us,'' Niccum recalls.

Convinced that she had a case, this grandmother, whose relatives account for several of Greenup's 1,700 residents, began to document her complaints. She kept a daily log, took photographs, and even has a collection of individually bagged black and oily paper towels (preserved by date), which she used to wash her windows when the waste-oil pits occasionally caught fire. What she couldn't document was the persistent foul smell, at its worst on humid days. ''A lot of times you'd like to have just moved out, but how can you go off when it's your own home?''

The evidence she did gather was eventually used by the EPA in its case against four waste-generating companies. A & F Materials Inc., owner of the recycling site, had gone bankrupt. Under a negotiated consent decree, the four waste generators - Alcoa, of Pittsburgh; Northern Petrochemical, of Omaha; CAM-OR Inc., of Indianapolis; and Petro-Lite Corporation, of St. Louis - are now paying for the multimillion-dollar cleanup.

Although in her view it has taken forever to get this far, Niccum is actually one of the fortunate few among neighbors of toxic dumps.

Both nationally and at the state level, the number of hazardous - waste sites continues to grow far faster than cleanup efforts can keep up with them.

Federal EPA officials have said the national total of such sites may yet run as high as 22,000. Illinois EPA officials say they may have as many as 1,000 just in this state. And they rely heavily on tips from citizens such as Niccum, who live near such sites and have a sense of history to pinpoint locations.

''We get calls almost every week and run down leads,'' notes Robert Casteel, a spokesman for the Illinois EPA office. ''You have to play detective with clues , and sometimes it's like trying to find a contact lens at the bottom of a swimming pool.''

There are now 782 sites on the EPA's approved and proposed national priority list. Washington officials insist at least some cleanup work will take place on 450 of the sites before the five-year, $1.6 billion Superfund legislation expires next October. But cleanups have been finished at only a half dozen sites so far.

''The progress on cleaning landfills is very slow,'' says Bob Ginsburg, research director of Citizens for a Better Environment, a Chicago-based organization.

''There is movement, there is action,'' insists Vanessa Musgrave, a spokeswoman for the federal EPA. ''It just takes a long time - you can't jump on every site at once - and a lot of the real work is done in labs and isn't visible. It's not as spectacular as many people wish it were.''

But almost everyone monitoring the progress of hazardous waste cleanups says lack of adequate funds has been a major roadblock. Federal EPA officials estimate the overall cost of cleaning up even priority sites at close to $20 billion. Most states have set aside little, if any, money for the cleanup job.

But an increasing number, such as Illinois, which passed a special $20 million, three-year appropriation in June, are making a concerted effort to qualify for Superfund dollars, which requires a 10 percent state contribution toward cleanup of each site.

Another key reason for delays is the lengthy process, required by law, of trying to track down the companies responsible for the problem, collect necessary scientific data on the sites, and determine the best way to tackle a cleanup. It often takes as long as three years, even when things go smoothly. And many of the companies involved, which by law can be required to pay the whole cost even if their contribution is minor, would rather fight it out in court than pay up.

The growing shortage of landfill space may yet become another roadblock. Much of the Greenup waste is being hauled to a site in Peoria, one of four legal hazardous-waste sites left in the state. Illinois once had seven, according to Mr. Casteel. One, now closed, is currently itself on the national Superfund list. Incineration, another disposal alternative, is much more expensive and not suitable for many kinds of toxic waste.

As workers build a road around the Greenup site and put up two air-monitoring stations, Niccum is somewhat optimistic.

''It looks as if they're doing what they're supposed to do, and I'm glad it's going to get done.'' She is convinced that her citizen push at least speeded action that might eventually have come by other means. ''We wrote everybody, including our congressmen, asking for help, and I feel like that's had an effect. ... Those chemical companies (now involved in the cleanup) don't like newspaper stories.''

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