County environment fund draws scrutiny; Kern says use is approved

News-DemocratJuly 5, 2014 

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern.

TIM VIZER — tvizer@bnd.com

State law requires landfill fees be used for environmental protection purposes, yet some St. Clair County Board members say the county has used this money to balance its budget in recent years.

Now they worry the depleted fund will not be able to tackle what they believe is its intended purpose -- such as preventing the contamination of groundwater for thousands of people living near a closed landfill south of Belleville.

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern said the costs of operating the appropriate environmental services utilizing the so-called "landfill surcharge fund" have been approved by the State's Attorney's Office, and is clearly outlined in the county appropriation ordinance.

"I have never had a County Board member raise a question about the use of surcharge money during the budget process nor in person, but all County Board districts have benefited from the multitude of services provided within the scope of the environmental programs funded by the surcharge," Kern said in an email response to questions.

The issue revolves around surcharges collected by the county at local landfills. The county collects about $2 for every ton of waste dumped at the landfills near East St. Louis and Marissa -- about $1.1 million annually, according to the county budget.

State law dictates the surcharge must be used for waste management and environment-related purposes. Yet board member David Tiedemann said the surcharges have been used to balance the county's budget since 2010. Tiedemann said he has consistently voted against approving the county's budget because of the issue.

The fund held about $13.6 million in 2009. More than $6.5 million has been drawn out of the fund in the past four years, leaving the fund with about $7.1 million at the beginning of this year.

The fund will lose an additional $2.6 million this year, according to the county budget, with $2.1 million in expenses paying the salaries of county employees.

Tiedemann, a Republican of Shiloh, said the fund should not be used to balance the budget and must have at least $10 million in order to address environment-related emergencies. Along with the two active landfills, the county has six closed landfills.

"Maybe we'll all be dead and gone before we need it, but I'd rather have it there for the next generation," Tiedemann said. Tiedemann is chair of the County Board's Environment Committee.

Spending from the fund increased from about $1.7 million in 2009 to more than $3 million in 2010, $2.4 million in 2011, $2.5 million in 2012, and $3.7 million in 2013 and 2014, according to county audits and budgets.

Kern, a Democrat of Belleville, said the landfill surcharge fund has been used for years to protect the county from illegal dumping, monitoring of abandoned and existing landfills, and the prosecution of improperly managed landfills, illegal dumping and hazardous sites that require cleanup. The county also has a crew that cleans up and legally disposes of non-hazardous sites that affects all communities in the county, Kern added.

"Many of these sites are potential sources of groundwater and air pollution, rodent and insect infestations," Kern said. "The county also supports state efforts to intercept, arrest and confiscate non-certified waste hauler's vehicles that try and use St. Clair County as a dumping site for St. Louis urban trash, and in many cases hazardous and medical waste."

"The St. Clair County Sheriff's Department, Public Health Department, Operation Clean Sweep, Zoning Department, and State's Attorney's Office have all been instrumental in preventing, arresting and helping to prosecute those individuals who are looking to make money by avoiding licensed landfills," Kern added. "The illegal dumping of tires and the use of derelict houses as hidden dump sites is and will continue to be a major environmental problem without due diligence 24 hours a day."

Concerns about the fund recently came to a head after county leaders received a letter from the state's Environmental Protection Agency stating the agency would no longer be assisting the county with funding remediation efforts at the closed J&R landfill south of Belleville along Illinois 158.

Remediation work at the abandoned 70-acre landfill began in 1999 and has cost nearly $3.5 million. The state contributed about $1.8 million toward the remediation with the county covering the rest of the cost.

The remediation created a "cap" on the site to prevent erosion and stormwater from causing hazardous waste to leave the site.

While the site does not currently need repairs, Tiedemann said he worries the landfill does not have a seal preventing hazardous waste from leaking into groundwater beneath the site in the future.

"The groundwater doesn't stay on the site so you are affecting a larger area if you ever have contaminated groundwater," Tiedemann said. "You're not doing something for a 20-acre tract. It could be thousands of people with polluted underground water."

Board members attending a recent Environment Committee meeting worried such a problem may become the responsibility of the county should the owner of a landfill be unable to address the issue. For example, the owner of the J&R site, James L. Quirin, is now serving more than two years in federal prison for theft of government funds and tax evasion.

Kern said St. Clair County taxpayers are not legally responsible to clean up abandoned landfills, gas stations or hazardous waste sites.

"St. Clair County has been successfully dealing the problems associated with landfills and hazardous waste sites for over 30 years, and have worked closely with various state agencies to mitigate the problems associated with environmental violations. Without the landfill surcharge none of the current interventions would be possible and county residents would be at the mercy of illegal waste haulers," Kern said.

Rebuilding the landfill fund may not be as easy as in the past because one of the county's two active landfills will soon no longer be able to collect waste, according to County Board member Frank Heiligenstein.

Heiligenstein, a Democrat of Freeburg, said the Milam Recycling and Disposal Facility near East St. Louis on the border of Madison and St. Clair counties will soon be full on the St. Clair County side causing revenue from surcharges to drop considerably.

"If this hits the fan, and we're going to be responsible, we're not going to have much money in that fund anymore. I realize we have $7 million but at one time we had over $13 million and we don't have those fees coming in like we used to," Heiligenstein said.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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