Ameren Illinois will spend $35 million to clean up a mess in Belleville that was made more than a century ago, officials announced Monday.
The work will take about three years to complete and will cause Richland Creek to be temporarily diverted. But when it’s done, Belleville will be rid of what Ameren describes as “potentially hazardous byproducts underground” that have lingered for decades.
According to company spokesman Brian Bretsch, the site of the old Belleville Gas Light & Coke Co. on Sixth Street between West Main and West Lincoln streets is contaminated with tar and ash, which was part of the process of creating gas from coal. The gas was used to light city street lamps during the industrial revolution in the late 1800s.
When the cleanup is done, the city of Belleville, which now owns the land, will be able to develop the area.
Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert said the city doesn’t have any specific plans for the site yet. He said after the work is completed will be a more appropriate time for city leaders to talk about how to develop the land.
“They’ll be digging down pretty significantly in depth,” Eckert said. “There is a lot of work that’s going to have to take place before we’ll see what we have to work with.”
Prep work is already underway. In late May, a big tent will go up over the site to contain contaminates when the soil is disturbed, Ameren Consulting Environmental Scientist Brian Martin said.
The contaminates from the coal gasification process can cause a variety of health concerns ranging from irritation of the nose and throat and nausea to an increased risk of cancer after long term exposure, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency examined the site and determined that:
There are impacts to the soil and groundwater from the manufactured gas operations that require additional remediation.
There has been impact along the east bank and creekbed and east bank of Richland Creek.
A significant number of foundations from original structures still remain beneath the ground.
There is significant subsurface contamination extending as much as 42 feet below the surface.
The contamination is at a depth that does not pose an immediate health risk to individuals on the site.
Groundwater has been impacted. But groundwater from the site is not used for human consumption.
Eckert said the clean up is a long time coming and he’s happy to see it get completed.
“We’re very anxious to see it cleaned up in a proper way,” Eckert said.
This is the third phase of cleanup at the site. Previously, underground structures from the coal gas plant were excavated and then removed and a water diversion trench was installed to keep runoff from the site from getting into Richland Creek.
Martin said that even though the city now owns the land, the clean up is Ameren’s responsibility. “Our customers are the ones who have to pay for it,” he said. “It’s built into our rate structure.”
During the work, Richland Creek will be diverted to a new channel on the west side of the Gas Light & Coke Company property, according to Martin. When the work is done, the original channel will be restored.
“It will be the same route,” Martin said. “But it will have a more stable bank than it does now. It will be rip rapped and all cleaned up.”
Although the city of Belleville has owned the property since 1960, Ameren assumed responsibility for the cleanup through a series of utility consolidations that ended with it acquiring Illinois Power Co. in 2004.
Belleville Gas Light & Coke Co. was founded in 1856 by influential early Belleville resident Edward Abend who served as mayor of the city four times and was a member of the Illinois House of Representatives from 1848-50.
The company created hydrogen gas by burning coal in an airless oven called a retort. The gas was then captured and stored in large tanks on the site.
Martin said the coal plants were a huge feather in the cap of American cities at the time they were built.
“They were like the equivalent of high speed Internet service coming to town in this age,” Martin said. “Everyone wanted to have the latest technology.”
But the clamor to add electric lights in the late 1800s is still causing problems today.
Back then, when plastic and steel pipes weren’t available, hollowed out logs were often cobbled together to create makeshift gas pipes. That, along with the waste from burning tons of coal, contaminated sites similar to Belleville’s all over the country.
It was also the advancement of technology that spelled the end for the short reign of coal gas plants. When better metal piping became available, gas could be delivered over long distances, so there was no need for a plant in every town.
The Belleville plant was closed in 1917. After that, its buildings were razed one by one beginning in the 1950s. The last one, the former powerhouse, was demolished in 2011.