Answer Man

Instruments in place to detect emissions by trail

Air monitoring station near bike path in Belleville.
Air monitoring station near bike path in Belleville. News-Democrat

Q. Recently, Ameren announced that it will clean up the old Illinois Power station site near Sixth and West Main streets. While cycling along the bike path on the site’s southern and western perimeter, I one day noticed three sets of of instruments that had been installed inside the fence along the trail. I assume they may be monitoring for pollutants that may be released once the digging starts. Will they be like a tornado siren, issuing an alarm if a certain pollution level is exceeded? Are those living or working nearby in any danger? Will I be safe riding the bike trail during the work?

— Pat Jenkins, of Belleville

A. You can breathe easy. While those new gizmos you see are checking the air for potentially hazardous pollutants, they’re merely a safety backup to ensure the public is in no danger during the work, according to Brian Martin, a consulting environmental scientist for Ameren.

“We’ve done several of these projects this way — I’d say in the neighborhood of 15 to 20 overall,” he told me. “We’ve never seen an emissions problem on the perimeter of a property. These air-monitoring stations are there just as a precaution so that if someone asks ‘Hey, am I exposed? Do I have a risk?’ we can say no and we can have actual data to show them.”

For those still unaware of the coming work, Ameren is spending $35 million to clean up a site that the old Belleville Gas Light & Coke Co. had polluted with tar and ash in the late 1800s as it created gas from coal to light city street lamps. The coal gas plant was closed in 1917, but all the filthy byproducts remained in the ground after first Illinois Power and then the city of Belleville took over the site. Ameren, which acquired Illinois Power in 2004, is expected to spend the next three years wrapping up a three-phase cleanup so the site can be developed safely.

To do that, however, countless tons of dirt are going to have to be hauled away, which, of course, risks the release of those old pollutants into the air during the excavation work.

“The soil contains coal tar, which is a mixture of a lot of different compounds,” Martin said. “Benzene is one of those, which, of course, has some health concerns if there’s long-term exposure. There’s also polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and we will be monitoring for those as well.”

Yet even before work begins, those air-monitoring stations are on the job.

“We set them up in advance to determine what the conditions are before we start because the chemicals we’re talking about are not unique to coal tar. There’s always some level of these chemicals present anyway. We just want to make sure that any emissions from our property don’t increase risk to the public and cause any kind of a health concern.”

To prevent that risk, you’ll soon be seeing a huge circuslike tent being erected over the first area to be excavated. The tent will be connected to “some pretty high-powered air-handling units” that will scrub the air coming from the tent of dust and odors from contaminants like naphthalene, the main ingredient in traditional mothballs. As the work continues, the tent likely will be moved a half-dozen times. Martin expects digging may reach depths of up to 45 feet in spots with the contaminated dirt hauled away to a landfill.

All the while, those air-monitoring stations will keep their nose on the activity. However, they’re not designed to sound an alarm if a certain pollution level is exceeded. Instead, their samplings will be sent off to a lab for detailed analysis.

“But during the actual cleanup, we will have a technician who will patrol the edge of the property with some handheld instruments,” Martin said. “He’ll be monitoring for dust, benzene and so on and his threshold will be set very low before we get close to any kind of a health concern. If he sees anything, then we take steps to reduce the emissions from the site before they become a problem.”

Before digging begins, the public will be invited to go under the “big top” so they can familiarize themselves with the coming work, Martin said. Meanwhile, you’re urged to keep enjoying the bike trail.

“There may be periods when, say, because of the construction or some of the equipment moving around we may ask the city to close the bike trail for a few days, but that will be well-posted,” Martin said. “Otherwise, as long as the trail is open, there’s no reason not to use it.”

Today’s trivia

In the 1964 movie “Ensign Pulver,” one scene shows the crew watching the movie “Young Dr. Jekyll Meets Frankenstein.” The movie doesn’t really exist, but who was given credit for playing young Dr. Jekyll? And from which real movie did the “Ensign Pulver” director steal clips to fabricate the flick?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: In the 32-year history of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, 21 performers have been inducted more than once. Nine, including all four Beatles, were inducted first as a member of a band before being honored for their solo work.

Three, however, were recognized for their solo work first before going in with a group. Of that trio, the first was Clyde McPhatter, who was inducted in in 1987. Often called the most imitated R&B star of the 1950s and ’60s, McPhatter would soar to the top of the charts with such hits as “A Lover’s Question” and “Treasure of Love.” Then, in 1988, McPhatter would be posthumously inducted again as a member of the original Drifters.

The other two first honored for their solo work were Rod Stewart (1994) before he went in as part of Faces in 2012 and Neil Young (1995) before he was recognized in 1997 for his work with Buffalo Springfield. So far, only one performer has been inducted three times — Eric Clapton, first for his work with The Yardbirds (1992) and Cream (1993) before finally being honored for his solo work in 2000.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or call 618-239-2465.