Metro-East News

Under the tent: Work moving fast to clean up contaminated site

Ameren contamination removal continues in Belleville

Ameren contamination removal continues in Belleville under large tent
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Ameren contamination removal continues in Belleville under large tent

It doesn’t look like much is going on from the outside, but under the big, white tent a block south of West Main Street at Sixth Street, the earth is moving.

Up to 1,000 tons of soil a day are loaded into dump trucks under the tent that’s as wide as a football field. The trucks make a 25-minute drive to the Milam Landfill over and over again.

Eventually, the trucks full of dirt are tested. Those found to be free of contamination will head back to the Belleville site along with soil removed from the Columbia Quarry that will be used to refill the hole.

The project is part of a coal tar cleanup being undertaken by Ameren Illinois. The company is spending $35 million to clean up the former site of the Belleville Gas Light and Coke Company, according to Ameren spokesman Brian Bretsch.

The work, which began in September, is expected to take three years.

Belleville Gas Light and Coke created gas from coal at the plants in the late 1800s. The fuel was used to light the city’s street lights in the era. Gas street lights at the time were a sign that a city was on the cutting edge of technology.

Brian Martin, Ameren’s project lead at the cleanup site, said coal gas was stored in a cylindrical container 16 to 18 feet below ground, made of concrete and brick. But some of the coal tar that accumulated at the bottom seeped through the structure into the soil over time. The ground was also contaminated by ash created from the process of making coal gas.

While the work is beyond the eye of the public, it is going according to plan, according to Martin.

“We’re on schedule and on budget, he said.

Michael Crutcher, of cleanup contractor PSC Industrial Outsourcing of Columbia, said workers will dig down as far as 45 feet below the protection of the big tent to make sure all the coal tar contaminants are removed.

Eight air scrubbers the size and shape of semi-truck box trailers filled with 10 tons of carbon each can filter the entire volume of air within the tent four times an hour while work goes on inside. Air quality monitors maintain that the level of contaminants is safe to breathe. Otherwise workers would have to do their jobs while wearing respirators.

The air is pulled through ducts and filtered through carbon before being expelled into the outside atmosphere.

We’re on schedule and on budget.

Brian Martin, Ameren project leader

Crutcher said they keep a negative air pressure inside the tent that prevents contaminants and the smell of the coal tar from seeping out. Usually, Crutcher said, all eight scrubbers don’t run at once. But, if they do, it produces enough force that the walls of the tent are sucked in noticeably.

Work will be done in eight stages with the tent being moved in between each step. The structure will move east initially. After that work is done, it will move west to the current path of Richland Creek, which will be re-routed to allow the creek bed to be excavated.

Jennifer Seul, an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency project manager assigned to the Belleville cleanup operation, could not be reached for comment. She said earlier the agency will provide assistance and oversight to Ameren throughout the project.

“The nice thing about this is they know what they’re doing. (Ameren) is very experienced in this kind of remediation,” Seul said.

What’s under that tent?

The tent, which can withstand 120-mph winds, is designed to keep contaminants from the disturbed soil from being freed into the air. It also contains the smell of the coal tar residue — which smells like a cross between moth balls and hot motor oil.

The tent has been used at other similar cleanup sites across the state, Crutcher said.

“When the tent moves, people think that means we’re done,” Crutcher said. “But it only means were done with the first step.”

The tent causes a lot of other confusion, too.

When it was in Jacksonville there was a group of teens who were pushing at the same time for a skateboard park to be built, Crutcher said.

“When the tent went up they thought we were building a skate park inside and it was a secret,” Crutcher said. In Carlinville, locals were convinced a water park was being built beneath the tent, Martin added.

Residents often ask to look inside the tent to see what’s happening or inquire whether any interesting artifacts have been found.

Despite the site’s lengthy history, only one noteworthy thing has been found so far: A blue beer bottle dating to the 1880s labeled “L. Abegg” and Belleville, Ill.” for the Louis Abegg Soda Co., with an interlocked “A-B” logo on the bottom.

According to records, the A-B logo was the mark of Aneheuser-Busch founder Adolphus Busch’s glass bottle company dating to 1886. Busch purchased Belleville Glass Co. in 1892 and one of the founders of Belleville Glass was four-time Belleville Mayor Edward Abend, who also was an owner of Belleville Gas Light and Coke.

Who’s responsible for the cleanup?

Ameren was not responsible for making the mess at the site, Bretsch said, but the company assumed liability for the cleanup when it purchased Illinois Power Co. in 2004.

Belleville Gas Light and Coke was founded in 1856. After that, the utility was swallowed up by one larger company after another.

The rapid advancement that led to the city’s clamoring for its own gas street lights made the heyday of the company short-lived. By the early part of the 20th century, metal piping was developed to the point gas could be shipped over long distances. One central gas company could serve several towns instead of every city having to have its own plant.

Belleville Gas Light and Coke was closed in 1917. The buildings that made up the plant were torn down one by one starting in the 1950s. In 1960, the site of the company was acquired by the city of Belleville. The last building standing, the company’s former powerhouse that served for a long time as a city storage building, was demolished in 2011.

Prior to its destruction, the building served as home to the city Labor and Industry Museum’s Harrison Jumbo steam engine, which was built in Belleville in 1885. Jumbo now stays in a special annex built onto the museum building at 123 N. Church Street.

We don’t have any specific plans yet. But it’s going to take a couple more years before the project is done and we have to decide.

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert said when the work is finished, the city will be able to develop the property.

“We don’t have any specific plans yet,” Eckert said. “But it’s going to take a couple more years before the project is done and we have to decide.

“At the very least, we’re going to have a very nice green space,” Eckert said. “We’ll probably do something there that makes a nice entrance to the downtown area.”

It was an IEPA examination of the site that prompted the cleanup in the first place. And once Ameren completes its cleanup, the IEPA will determine what can and cannot be done with the land. Ameren can either clean the site to commercial and industrial standards or to residential standards.

Ameren cleanup by the numbers:

  • 4 — The number of times per hour air scrubbers at the site can clean the air within the tent
  • 20 — The average number of workers on the site at one time
  • 8 — The number of times the tent will be moved before the project is completed
  • 45 — How many feet down the workers will dig to remove contaminated soil
  • 120 — Wind speed in miles per hour the tent over the cleanup site can withstand
  • 1,000 — Number in tons of soil removed per day
  • 1856 — The year the gas plant was opened
  • 1960 — When the city of Belleville acquired the property
  • 2011 — When the last building was torn down
  • $35 million — The amount Ameren is spending on the cleanup