Devastation of a Community
In 1902, the Ayer and Lord Tie Company bought land on the Northeast Side of Carbondale to create a plant to produce railroad ties. The plant was intended to serve the Illinois Central Railroad. The plant was built to have a capacity 25% larger than any other similar plant in the entire world. Located in the black, underserved neighborhood of the city, it employed mostly black workers at a greatly reduced wage. Upon opening the plant employed around 200 men.
Before WWII, the 200 lb railroad ties were carried by black men and stacked for drying or loaded on to trains. The men would develop callouses on their shoulder, arm, neck and check. Their clothing was drenched with the toxic chemicals in the creosote. To counter the effect of the creosote, the workers had to bury their clothing in loose soil in their yards each evening to get some of the toxins out before they could be washed. Despite this gesture, the men carried these highly toxic chemicals back into their homes where it also impacted their families.
In addition to this method of spreading the toxins to the neighborhood, the air, water and soil in the neighborhood also became contaminated with the chemicals. This resulted, and continues to result in a high rate of cancer in the neighborhood, particularly multiple myeloma, which can be directly linked to creosote poisoning.
This site, even though not in operation since 1991, was a grave threat to our ancestors and continues to be a specific looming threat to our health today.
The history of the Kopper Plant, including the remediation process, is a stark example of environmental racism. At the time when the plant was in operating, the black community that bordered the Tie Plant had no idea of the deadly chemicals to which they were being exposed on a daily basis. The Plant had no fence around it and children used to play on its premises.
It wasn’t until 2000, nine years after the plant closed that the Illinois Dept of Public Health conducted a health assessment of the plant site and began to offer health consultations. To make its assessment the Dept. of Public Health tested 4 private wells to the north of the site and declared that the site was safe. Unfortunately, the community lives primarily to the south of the site.
Marilyn Tipton, whose family owns land adjacent to the plant on the south side, and whose land on which we propose to examine the soil has experienced a long history of deaths in her family by cancer.
The Department of Public Health’s Assessment was based on the most flimsy analysis and yet they assured the people of Carbondale that there was no risk to them from the plant as it existed in 2000.
The 2000 report does admit that 1) the soils at the Koppers site were visibly contaminated with creosote and that 2) groundwater contamination at the site included phenols, metals, volatile organic chemicals, pentachlorophenol (PCP, and polycyclic caromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), that 3) past accidental releases of creosote products had contaminated Crab Orchard Creek, and that 4) completed exposure pathways included past ingestion, inhalation and dermal contact of contaminated groundwater by private well users; * past inhalation of airborne emissions from plant operations; and * past dermal contact, inhalation and ingestion of contaminated soils, and fugitive dust by on-site workers. Even so, the Dept of Public Health calculated that in 2000 the people of Carbondale were safe because now there was a fence around the property with a locked gate and they had taken a handful of soil samples and air samples and had even tested four private wells north of the site and found the water safe.
The spurious nature of the public statement that the people of Carbondale faced no threat from the Koppers site can be determined by looking at the attempted remediation project that began in 2003 at the instruction of the USEPA. Beazer, the company that now owned the plant wanted to prepare the site for industrial redevelopment and sell it for a profit. To do this, they had to clean up the site according to EPA specifications. (See USEPA Statement of Basis)
The USEPA Statement of Basis required the Beazer Company to perform the following remediation efforts:
- Construct a Corrective Action Management Unit (CAMU) (a secure landfill used to store and manage wastes from the corrective actions) on 5.5 acres of land.
- Relocate Glade Creek and Construct an Interceptor/Barrier Trench (creosote discharged into a segment of Glade Creek). To isolate the stream from contaminants Beazer would relocate a 1,600’ segment of the stream to a clean area to the east. The clean soils from the excavation would be used to backfill the old channel. A trench would be excavated to an approx. 30 foot depth within the former Glade Creek channel to intercept creosote beneath the ground surface for collection that would be shipped off site for reuse or disposal. Discharged groundwater would be treated on-site then routed to the Cdale publicly owned treatment works (POTW). This was supposed to remedy potential source migration to the new creek channel. The excavated soils and sediments would be placed in the CAMU.
- Excavate Glade Creel Sediment (Beazer would excavate approx. 3,500 cy of visibly contaminated sediments upstream and downstream of an existing grout blanket in Glade Creek, dewater the sediments and put them in CAMU.
- Place a Cover over Certain Soil Contamination (a low-permeability cover would be placed on 22 acres of the former process area where soil contamination exceeds safe exposure levels. The purpose of the cover is to provide a barrier between the soil, and human and environmental receptors, and to reduce contaminant migration from rain water infiltration
- Extract Dense Non-Aqueous Phase Liquid (DNAPL) (ie. Creosote and chemical laden water). (Beazer would install a DNAPL recovery well system in the former process area to collect creosote for off-site reuse or disposal. Groundwater that is extracted along with the DNAPL would be treated on-site and then routed to the Carbondale POTW.
- Contain Waste Pile (Two 10,000 cy soil waste piles that were created during an earlier remedy would be sampled to determine whether soil contamination exceeds safe exposure levels. The waste piles would be transported to the CAMU.
- Monitor Contaminated Sediments (37 wells that have been dropped from the site-wide groundwater monitoring network are proposed to be decommissioned as a remedy to minimize the wells’ potential to serve as possible long-term migration pathways for DNAPL and site constituents between hydrologic units.
- Eliminate Discharge Point into Smith Ditch (A surface water underdrain system from the former process area discharges contaminated water into Smith Ditch. This discharge point is proposed to be eliminated during construction of the soil cover remedy.
- Backfill the Small Unnamed Pond (a Small pond west of Glade Creek is contaminated as evidenced by an oily sheen on the water and dark, creosote staining along its banks. The pond is proposed to be emptied and backfilled to eliminate it as a human and environmental exposure point
- Create Institutional Controls (Use-restrictions would be imposed at the facility to reduce risk of human exposure to contaminated media.
- Monitor Groundwater (long-term post-remediation groundwater monitoring is proposed for a period of thirty years or longer. USEPA requires that the contaminated groundwater be contained within its current boundaries; a groundwater management zone will be established. Twenty-nine wells have been selected to provide site-wide coverage including the facility perimeter. The wells would be used to monitor for potential off-site migration of site constituents and are screened at various depths to monitor the different hydrogeologic units (vertical zones in the aquifer). If the contaminated groundwater should ever migrate beyond its current extent, then additional remediation measures would likely be needed. The containment remedy can be terminated if or when the groundwater quality has been restored to levels that allow for unrestricted use.
Due to pressure from the community concerning the remediation process, the USEPA issued a statement in 2005 saying that laboratory tests of soil collected outside the southern property line of the plant showed the soil to be free of wood-treatment chemicals. The USEPA declared this is good news for residents because it means that it is unlikely that contamination of the Kopper site has spread to the neighborhood (“Test Results Show Neighborhood Soil is Safe,” USEPA newsletter, June, 2005)
Again the people were given a false hope that they were safe from contamination.
On October 8, 2013 a Request for City Council Action is made by Brightfields Development LLC to receive an application to construct a solar array on the Kopper plant land. Brightfield has a history of building solar array installations on brown sites around the country. It was hired by Beazer to provide assistance during the remediation and redevelopment process. The City Council voted to defer action until meetings could be held on the northeast side with representatives from Beazer and Brightfields, IEPA and the City.
Between 2005 and 2019 there was a lot of correspondence between the EPA and the people of Carbondale regarding the soil testing methodology used by the EPA but the message was always the same. We followed protocol and things are safe.
It was a great surprise, therefore, when, in 2019, the USEPA added 15.8 acres to the clean-up plan that they had approved back in 2003. The new changes required that 8.4 acres of additional soil on new land be excavated and taken off-site and dumped in a landfill. Another 7.4 acres of contaminated soil would be managed with a one-foot soil cover. Due to a new environmental assessment, the EPA had discovered that deadly dioxin and furan compounds on the Koppers site had not been fully evaluated when they made their original assessment.
To this date, in August 2020, the Beazer Co and the EPA have yet to agree on a Sediment Monitored Natural Attenuation Work Plan (MNA) which was specified in the 2003 USEPA Statement of Basis. The purpose of such a plan is to predict how and when any residual contaminants will break down and disperse, based on the compounds and site conditions. An MNA plan schedules the monitoring process to evaluate the natural attenuation progress against expectations and include a contingency remedy to become activated if the attenuation does not behave as anticipated, or there is evidence that unacceptable levels of contamination are present. Without such a plan it is impossible to accurately state that the people of Carbondale are safe from toxic pollutants.
The Impact on the Black Community in Carbondale
The impact of this fiasco on the black community in Carbondale has been unbearable.
To help provide some clarity in this matter, Carbondale Spring, a people’s movement, has undertaken to create a multi-phased project to test the soil on Marilyn Tipton’s private land that borders the Koppers plant on the south using the latest testing techniques and methodology to determine once and for all if private property has been contaminated by toxic run off from the plant and the consequences of being exposed to this run-off.
In the event that chemical and DNA tests show that the soil on Ms Tipton’s land is toxic, we will conduct our own bioremediation project to determine if the soil can be cleaned up using natural organic processes. If so, we hope to demonstrate that our process can be duplicated on a small scale by other city residents to clean up their own property.
Before we explain this project in greater detail, let us look at the impact that this horrible history of environmental racism has had on the black community in Carbondale.
Tax Paying citizens that reside in the northeast section of Carbondale and residents throughout Carbondale have lived with the Ayers and Lord Tie Plant Company, then Koppers Tie Plant, now Beazer hazardous site for 89 years. This site, even though not in operation since 1991, was a grave threat to our ancestors and continues to be a specific looming threat to our health today.
In October of 2004, residents of northeast section of Carbondale (Predominately African American) was notified by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois EPA that an open house would be held at Thomas School to informed us that the land formerly known Kopper’s Tie Plant, now Beazer was contaminated with creosote and other dangerous toxins. The USEPA and Illinois EPA ordered Beazer, the current owner to the clean up the site. Many of us attended the open house and expressed concerns that creosotes and other toxic chemicals used to process the railroad ties or other products they produced may have harmed our health and the health of our family members. Former workers told the team that working so close to chemicals might have caused chronic health problems through the air, drinking water, fish, game and soil in our yards. We demanded a public health study.
We, our deceased family members, neighbors and friends have lived in this community for over 80 plus years and had no idea that we were being poisoned from the exposure of creosotes and the many other toxic chemicals Koppers-Beazer used to produce their products. Many were exposed from working at the site or exposed from our fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, and cousins who worked there. The plant operated 24 hours a day exposing the residents with the toxic smoke that spread throughout the community since 1902. We worked there! We played there! We drank the water! We gardened and raised chickens and cattle on our land! We hunted and ate other game (Rabbits, squirrels, etc.)!
We were in SHOCK!
During the many presentations held by the EPA-Beazer-City of Carbondale, we were told that there was no way our health and property could be contaminated because the water moving the contamination from the site did not flow south of the site, it flowed north. The fumes that penetrated the air were never addressed. Maybe they blew north too. The Smith farm was north of the site. During testing of their land the EPA found it to be contaminated. They were compensated and that family was white.
Even though people in our community were dying, especially the workers and extended family members, it was unknown to us that it was because of the exposure to toxic chemicals throughout our community. The many illnesses and deaths of so many people in our community were never acknowledged by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Illinois Department of Public Health, the Illinois EPA or the City of Carbondale that they could have been caused by the 80 plus years of exposure to the creosotes and other toxins. The aforementioned agencies kept this knowledge from the community.
It was only in 2004, after more than 100 years of living in a toxic environment that we became aware that the toxins not only contaminated the Koppers site, the property north of the facility, but more than likely also contaminated the residential properties south of the plant. There were many residents where families had clusters of cancers that more than likely were caused by the exposure to these toxins.
In 2005, the EPA notified us that they would test soil in our neighborhood outside the southern property line of the Kopper plant. We were alarmed! The residents of northeast Carbondale strongly became involved and many meetings were held. From 2004 until 2019, the EPA, Beazer East, City of Carbondale and Brightfield held many informational meetings and Public Hearings that caused distress to the residents. There were many unanswered questions. The information that was presented was evasive and aimed at discouraging the northeast community from doing any further research.
The tax paying residents of northeast Carbondale, repeatedly requested that the EPA and the City of Carbondale conduct a Public Health Study and test our land. The City of Carbondale finally tested 6 inches of soil on several properties, but never the water and declared the land safe. The testing was inaccurate. The EPA tested the soil in April 2005 and reported that there was no contamination in the northeast neighborhood.
Many of our residents that worked at Kopper’s, children, spouses and neighbors that were exposed to the toxins have died with multiple myeloma, sarodosis, heart attacks and many other diseases. We had contacted lawyers, our senators, and congressmen for help but to no avail.
Several of our residents, who had been in the fight with the EPA, City of Carbondale, Beazer to get them to right the injustice that we have endured have died since 2004. Mr. Willie Neal and Mr. William McCutchen both went to their graves fighting for justice for the northeast residents of Carbondale!
In 2013, our fight began again. Brightfield was awarded a special use permit by the City of Carbondale to build a Solar Array Park on the contaminated land despite the objections of tax paying residents of northeast Carbondale. The permit was for 3 years. It expired and Brightfield applied again in 2017. The City of Carbondale denied the permit. In March 2019, the EPA found more toxins south of the plant. Closer to the neighborhood.
In 2014, Brian Klubek, retired Soil Scientist from SIU, joined our fight and he was able to decipher the EPA reports and ask questions, which surprised the EPA, Beazer, Brightfield and the City of Carbondale and they became defensive that a soil scientist would come to the rescue of the people without a voice. Other community members and groups saw the misuse and injustice that the residents of northeast Carbondale were facing and joined in the struggle. The EPA and the City of Carbondale treated the tax paying residents of northeast Carbondale like our concerns didn’t matter. We feel helpless! We have received no representation from the City of Carbondale that we have lived in for years or from the EPA.
We have been subjected to environmental injustices since 1902. We are helpless in this fight because we are unable to hire an attorney, have our land tested or get a public health assessment. Our voices remain unheard by the State EPA, US EPA and the City of Carbondale.
- US Environmental Protection Agency: Hazardous Waste Cleanup – Past and Current Status of Cleanup: Former Koppers Wood Treatment Facility – Carbondale, Illinois
- PDF Download, Public Health Assessment, 2001, past and current exposures, prepared by Illinois Department of Health with the Federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: Public Health Assessment
- Daily Egyptian, Nov. 2, 2005: Council seeks second opinion for Koppers
- US EPA Archive: EPA Tests Soil in Neighborhood; Results Due in April, Former Koppers Wood-Treatment Site
Carbondale, IL, April 2005
- PDF Download: Newspaper articles and correspondence related to cleanup, 2006: Kopper’s Newspaper Articles
- The Southern, Aug. 19 2004, Updated Dec. 18 2014: Contamination Cleanup Begins at the Beazer Site
- US EPA: New Round of Sampling Planned for Treatment Site, Former Koppers Wood-Treating Site Carbondale, Illinois June 2012
- PDF Download, Carbondale Times Opinion, March 20 2015: The Brightwoods Plan Represents Environmental Racism in Action
- US EPA September 29 2019: Explanation of Significant Difference and Updated Cleanup Plan
- The Center for Susistence Research, July 1, 2020: 7-1-20 The Kopper’s site and the toxic ghost
- The Southern, Nov. 21, 2020: Soil remediation begins at former Koppers wood treatment site
- WBEZ / The Pulitzer Center, Febrary 11, 2021, by Amelia Blakely: A Tale of Two Brownfield Sites in the Midwest
- The Southern, April 7, 2021: EPA says latest cleanup at the former Kopper’s Tie Plant site in Carbondale is complete