RANTOUL, IL – Chanute Air Force Base, closed for more than two decades, remains an environmental threat to the health and safety of hundreds of thousands of Illinois residents. It is a case study of how the Air Force and Pentagon use their national security clout to break agreements that can break local communities.
The United States Army decided in 1917 that East Central Illinois was the ideal location for its third training airfield to support the World War I effort. It intended Chanute Field (later renamed Chanute Air Force Base) to be a temporary installation. But like so many other government installations, it survived and grew, largely because it served a practical function. It was centrally located and had superior training officers and distinguished alumni. The temporary barracks of the 1930s became permanent during World War II.
In the early 1950s, Chanute AFB prepared tens of thousands of airmen for the Korean War. During the Vietnam War, it served as a training center. In the 1960s, as the Cold War heated up, it became home to the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile maintenance program and the Air Force’s fire training program, located in the center of the base and the southeast corner known as the “900 area” (named after the buildings’ addresses).
Military flight operations ceased in 1971 – an indication of Chanute’s waning strategic importance. The base almost closed in 1979, but the U.S. government decided to keep it open. Capital expansion projects were completed in the 1980s, costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. But these projects did not stop the Department of Defense in 1988 from listing Chanute as one of 17 bases to be closed. The base, having trained more than two million servicemen and women over the years, was decommissioned on Sept. 30, 1993 in the first round of DOD base closures designed to save the federal government money after the Cold War ended.
When Chanute was decommissioned, it took away the nearby village of Rantoul’s major economic driver. The base was the largest employer in Champaign County, second only to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
The Air Force downplayed the environmental contamination it was leaving behind and emphasized the “economic boom” that could happen if the base’s land was transferred to the town.
Former Mayor Katy Podagrosi told the crowd at Chanute’s closing ceremony that there’s “a new beginning in our community and redevelopment is on the way!” according to The Chanute Air Force Base 75 Year Pictorial History by Donald O. Weckhorst, published in 1992.
The economic boom never happened.
Just off Interstate 57, Rantoul is an economically-challenged, blue-collar community in a predominantly agricultural region. The village shrank from about 25,000 to under 13,000 citizens after the base closed. With the surplus of vacant rental properties and homes, the school district lost a large portion of its tax base. It went from economic prosperity to poverty in quick succession. Vacant housing became occupied with Section 8 low-income tenants. Crime sharply increased. Large businesses were reluctant to invest in the community. In the ghostly downtown, several of the buildings are vacant or dilapidated. Some businesses are only open part-time.
City-Data.com states Rantoul’s median household income in 2011 was $32,498 (well below $53,234 for Illinois and Champaign County’s $41,198) while the median home value was $85,327 ($178,500 for Illinois). The Census Bureau estimates that Rantoul’s poverty rate from 2008-2012 was 27.1 percent (well above Illinois’ 13.7 percent). More than 40 percent of Rantoul’s residents are African-American, Asian, Latino, or bi- or multi-racial.
The village increased its police force to 33 fulltime officers to control the violent, drug-fueled crime. It purchased numerous vacant properties suspected of being used for drug trafficking and some gang-like activities, only to demolish them. Village leaders argued it was necessary for safety and economic reasons.
Rantoul failed to attract United Airlines and other big businesses in the 1990s and 2000s. In the early 2000s, Rantoul did everything in it could to attract a pork plant. It secured a grant worth millions of dollars from the state, and the company received some tax incentives. The regional plant went bankrupt in 2009, laying off 215 employees. The village recruited Rantoul Foods, a pork supplier, in 2010 to replace most of those lost jobs.
Over the past six years, the only other noticeable economic developments were the Wal-Mart Supercenter on the town’s west side and Easton-Bell Sports, a manufacturer of sports equipment and clothes, on the east. The jobs at these companies are mainly minimum wage up to $15 an hour. Managerial positions are scarce. There is a doctor’s office, a couple small private law practices, and a dental office, but Dr. Douglas White, the dentist, retired in January after 56 years. Police are paid well, and the school districts provide decent salaries, but teachers are compensated well below Illinois averages.
At the sprawling former air force base, AT&T set up some operations by the base’s hangars. A couple of base facilities store overstock items, and there is an aerospace museum at Grissom Hall. Farmers grow crops on base property. Its golf course is open to the public. Some land has been bought for residential development and people continue to live on base.
But a key reason Rantoul, only 130 miles south of Chicago, cannot get major economic investment is because Chanute AFB remains highly contaminated. Most of Chanute’s land has residential building restrictions and is so polluted that no one legally can sell it for residential development.
Cover-Up Rather Than Cleanup
Top Air Force and Illinois officials, including members of the governor’s office, state environmental and local community leaders have been engaged in a cover-up of a major environmental threat from the long shuttered base. The local newspapers, the Rantoul Press and News-Gazette, rarely report on Chanute’s environmental contamination. No one wants to scare away possible investors or bear the cleanup costs. The responsible authorities downplay the problems even though Chanute’s closure has left Rantoul and the surrounding community an economic cripple. The motive for keeping news of Chanute’s toxic legacy quiet is simply part of a so far futile effort to attract so far non-existent business expansion.
Most area residents know Rantoul as the place where Chanute Air Force Base was located. Most of the former base’s 2,174 acres of land have been transferred to Rantoul, private businesses, and residential developments.
In the early 2000s, Rantoul unknowingly bought structures containing asbestos from the Air Force and burned the buildings without remediating the problem. The village paid fines to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. The Air Force numerous times tried to sell land to Rantoul without remedying the environmental problems and also constantly fought the village and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on what areas to study or cleanup.
The village and its residents would like to think Chanute does not concern them anymore – that the old military installation is a withering relic of a bygone age. But Chanute’s toxic legacy is still seriously threatening the health of those who remain in the area.
Eyewitness testimony, coupled with countless federal and state documents, show Chanute Air Force Base still has massive chemical contamination with continuing polluted ground water migration. There is also an indication the ground water contaminants have seeped a mile or so south of the base’s property lines, polluting several private wells with carcinogenic dioxin. These wells soon might also be threatened by trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent used by the military to degrease metal.
In 1980, the U.S. Congress passed CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act) — commonly known as Superfund — to investigate how chemicals were used, stored, and disposed of in past and present procedures to see how these practices negatively impacted the local environment. The Superfund program involves some of the most contaminated sites, usually at dumps, former military bases or closed industrial facilities. Chanute, like hundreds of U.S. military bases around the world, ceased operations to save the federal government money and also to limit the environmental contamination (euphemistically termed footprint by the armed forces) the military produced with the chemicals utilized during base activities.
One hundred and twenty-four U.S. military bases have been decommissioned during five rounds of closures. More than 130 bases are Superfund sites. The law stated liability for any chemical and environmental contamination occurring during or from base operations would fall on DOD. Almost every major military base has a Superfund site with TCE and other contamination, but by design or omission, the Chanute Air Force Base did not receive that designation. As a result, the area’s ground water supply is threatened by dangerous chemicals seeping into a creek, a manmade lake and several aquifers that provide water to the region.
Chanute Should Have Been A Superfund Site
Like most bases, Chanute was inspected under CERCLA’s provisions in 1983, and the resulting environmental impact study showed extensive contamination from herbicides, pesticides, chemical burning and spills and disposal practices. Investigations continued through the 1980s and 1990s, even after the 1993 closure. Chanute received a 48.3 Hazardous Ranking System out of a 100, which is significantly higher than the 28.5 minimum required for possible inclusion on the Superfund’s National Priority List (NPL). If an area was approved for NPL status, it received a better financed and more concentrated cleanup effort.
In 2000, the U.S. and Illinois EPAs recommended part of Chanute (designated Operational Unit-2 – OU-2 – on the southeastern part of the base) to be placed on the National Priority List. That part consists of “four uncapped landfills, Fire Training Areas 1 and 2, and Buildings 916, 922, 927, 932, 975 and 995, which contained either oil-water separators, underground storage tanks (USTs), sludge pits, or a combination of those items.”
According to the NPL proposal, “Migration of contamination from the sources in OU-2 into Salt Fork Creek is the primary concern. Although each of these sources potentially contaminates the creek via runoff and drainage ditches, the migration of contamination from Landfills 1 and 2 is the most critical threat for four reasons: (1) Salt Fork Creek runs directly between the two landfills, (2) the ground water table in some areas of the landfills is as shallow as 1 foot below ground surface, (3) ground water in the Wisconsin till flows into Salt Fork Creek, and (4) leachate has been observed seeping from the banks of Salt Fork Creek near Landfills 1 and 2.”
As mentioned, the ground water table is as shallow as one foot and the creek runs between the two landfills.
Illinois EPA found the migration of hazardous substances from Landfills 1 and 2 going into Salt Fork Creek sediments including bis(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and lead concentrations at elevated levels. Various Air Force and EPA documents confirm the waste and other contaminates migrating into Salt Fork Creek.
Numerous studies from the Air Force and state and federal EPA show that Heritage Lake and Salt Fork Creek have received landfill runoff for two reasons: the shallow water table and the ground water flows in a southeastern direction from the Wisconsinan aquifer and south-southwest from the Illinoian aquifer.
Some farmers south of Chanute use the shallower Wisconsinan aquifer and the Illinoian aquifer for agricultural irrigation, thus placing the food supply in jeopardy.
Salt Fork Creek was found in the 1980s and 1990s to have been polluted from the landfills, but was never remediated. According to the fall 2006 issue of Centerviews, an Air Force magazine, the creek is fine despite many chemicals that “found their way into the creek’s sediments and bank soils, including dioxins, the metals aluminum and arsenic and the pesticide DDT.” According to the article, URS Corporation’s Margaret Roy (a defense contractor) said the Salt Fork Creek pollutants were “naturally occurring metals, and the other chemicals are commonly associated with agricultural runoff, street runoff and atmospheric deposition (air pollutants).”
A Nov. 6, 1987 article in The Pacesetter (Chanute’s weekly newspaper) quoted Center Commander Brig. Gen. Joel M. McKean saying, “There is not, and has not been, any cause for concern about the Chanute Air Force Base drinking water. … all of the studies… indicate absolutely no reason for any concern about on-base water pollution.” McKean was responding to Chanute being listed in an Air Force Times article as a potential ground water contaminated site.
In a Pacesetter Dec. 4, 1987 follow-up, Chanute base chief of environmental and contract planning, Bob Hannah, said, “At some sites, no action may be required. Perhaps we will just continue to monitor the sites. … in some cases, clean up or neutralization may be appropriate. Each site will be evaluated on its own merits and dealt with accordingly.”
In the section of the base called the 900 area, extensive engine testing was done in the 1960s. Engines were sometimes run until they blew up to test their working limits. During that time, there was a rumor that one high-ranking official would not drink the base water.
Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan wanted Chanute placed on the NPL because the state and Air Force could not agree on how to clean it up. For seven years, from the closure in 1993 until the presidential election in 2000, the Air Force fought the NPL nomination, fearing the listing would be a stigma, citing its “exemplary cooperation” in Chanute’s chemical cleanup, despite the minimal action that was taken.
Bush’s OMB Keeps Chanute Off Superfund List
During the George W. Bush administration, the DOD claimed victory over the EPA. Under President Bush, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget mediated the EPA and Air Force dispute and ruled in favor of the Air Force in 2003. The Base Realignment and Closure Cleanup Team (BCT) signed an agreement to have Chanute cleaned up by Oct. 1, 2005, or be placed on the NPL. That date has come and gone, but Chanute has not been either cleaned up or placed on the NPL.
Chanute’s TCE soil and ground water contamination was worse than expected after the Air Force won the NPL decision. Polluted sites include a TCE pit, spills at Buildings 747, 975 and 995 and a couple hangars, and extensive ground water contamination in the 900 area. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) shows “TCE (and its breakdown products such as 1,2-dichloroethylene and vinyl chloride) as the only contaminant that warranted further evaluation. This decision was based on the frequency and magnitude of measured concentrations and the proximity of TCE ground water plumes to the former base boundary” from 2000-2007 data samples.
The ASTDR collected samples from the Illionian aquifer (more than 60 feet below ground surface to 140 feet) with 54 samples from 15 monitoring wells from 2000 and 2004. TCE was “detected in 5 of 15 wells, but was not detected at above 1 part per billion (ibid). TCE in the Wisconsinan aquifer (10 to 35 feet below ground surface), however, was found above 5 parts per billion at five sites on the base’s northern boundary and dozens at the 900 area (ibid). ATSDR stated the TCE plumes “do pose a health concern for the future that require future monitoring of plume movement” to prevent it from moving to private wells south of Chanute (ASTDR page 62).
TCE was found in the ground water under the laundry mat that was by Lincoln’s Challenge Academy, a half-year program started right after the base closed where troubled urban youth go to straighten up their lives and get their GED degree. The laundry mat was demolished in 2011.
TCE was detected in surface water and sediment at Salt Fork Creek in three of 14 samples with 59 ppb the maximum reading.
According to the ASTDR report, based on ground water flow and sources of ground water contamination, “ATSDR identified the landfills in the southeastern portion of CAFB as possible sources of groundwater contamination that flow beyond site boundaries and impact private drinking water wells” and TCE had a toxic plume of 110,000 parts per billion in the Wisconsinan aquifer.
Besides ground water and soil contamination, other toxic concerns are the enormous White Hall (at 500,000 square feet) and the steam plant at the base’s center. Both buildings are vacant and contain asbestos, mold, standing ground water and other possible pollutants. These buildings need to be razed and demolished. Some of their glass windows are broken, so vapor from volatile organic chemicals can seep out into the air.
These large structures are near residential areas and Grissom Hall, where, in addition to the public museum, Rantoul residents attend theatre productions.
Agent Orange at Chanute
Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr., who authorized the use of Agent Orange, a herbicide, in Vietnam to defoliate the jungles, lost his son, Lieutenant Elmo Zumwalt III, to leukemia. Zumwalt believed his son’s death was a direct result of that order. His testimony to Congress on March 5, 1990 became known as the Zumwalt Report. The admiral stated it was irresponsible to chronically ill veterans and their families for the federal government to continue denying Agent Orange’s toxicity.
In June 2013, a former airman named Michael Glasser visited the Rantoul Press (the town’s weekly newspaper owned by The News-Gazette Inc. media company that owns nine newspapers and three radio stations in East Central Illinois) to discuss his concerns about Chanute’s dire environmental situation.
Glasser, who now lives in South Florida and drove more than 1,200 miles to Rantoul, served at Chanute from 1963-64 as a young man. The young Glasser was part of the entomology department, where he sprayed herbicides and pesticides to control weeds and pests.
Glasser said he sprayed the phenoxyacetic herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T on base, and frequently mixed them. Glasser said this toxic mixture was not officially called Agent Orange when he served in 1963-64, but was the code word during the Vietnam War for servicemen to identify the chemical product by the orange strips on the barrels. On Monsanto’s website, it defines Agent Orange as a 50/50 mixture of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T.
Glasser also said he buried unused barrels of what would later be known as Agent Orange by Heritage Lake, a former sludge pit by the four landfills in the 900 area that became a manmade lake in 1984.
To prove his assertions, the 69-year-old veteran produced his veteran disability papers from the Department of Veterans Affairs Board of Veterans Appeals which states: “He has cancer of the bladder, prostate and urethra as a result of exposure to hazardous chemicals during his service” during his time at Chanute.
The document further states Glasser said he was exposed to “hazardous chemicals and used insecticides, such as DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), malathion, diazinon, benzene, chlordane, proidine and Agent Orange.”
2,4,5-T and DDT are now banned from being used or produced in the United States by the U.S. EPA after medical studies demonstrated a connection between usage and chronic illnesses. Benzene is a known carcinogen. 2,4-D is still widely used, but has been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma although the U.S. EPA in 2007 said existing data “do not support a link between human cancer and 2,4-D exposure.”
The Veteran Affairs surgeon representing Glasser said “prostate cancer is a service-connectable disease with Agent Orange exposure” and the board ruled that “there’s no evidence to the contrary, and the veteran’s treating VA surgeon is competent to provide such an opinion.”
Another veteran who lives in the area confirmed Glasser’s account of Agent Orange being used at Chanute, but declined to go on the record.
The Chanute Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) is a public board that works in conjunction with the Air Force and Illinois EPA to approve Records of Decision and provide more information about cleanup activities or concerns to the public. At a quarterly meeting on Aug. 22, 2013, a board member named Doug Rokke said he had a source (Glasser) who said Agent Orange was used and buried at Chanute. Paul Carroll, the environmental coordinator for the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, and Chris Hill, the Illinois EPA project manager of Chanute, both said there have been other claims of Agent Orange usage and burial on the base, but maintained nothing has been found.
Air Force Denies Use of Agent Orange at Chanute
After the August meeting, this Rantoul Press reporter asked follow-up questions to Carroll and Hill. They did not answer. Instead, public relations coordinators Chad Starr (Air Force) and Andrew Mason (Illinois EPA) intervened. Both Starr and Mason denied phone interviews and only wanted to answer by email.
Starr on Aug. 23 denied that Agent Orange was used at Chanute. This reporter cited that the 1983 Installation Restoration Program of Chanute on page 72 stated, “During the 1960’s, four 55-gallon drums containing 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T were buried in an on-base landfill.”
Starr wrote: “The document does not state ‘Agent Orange’ was disposed but does discuss the possibility, based on interviews with base personnel in or around 1983, that four 55-gallon drums of the two herbicides, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and/or 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T) may have been buried at Landfill 2 or Landfill 3.”
Monsanto made some of the herbicide for DOD. Monsanto’s own website says Agent Orange contains a 50/50 mixture of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. The chemical reaction creates the byproduct dioxin (2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin or TCDD), an extremely toxic chemical even in small dosages.
A March 13, 1984 letter from U.S. EPA’s Richard E. Bartelt to Air Force Major Paul D. Garcia stated “some concern is expressed about four drums of pesticides which were deposited in either Landfill No. 2 or No. 3. Locating the drums would undoubtedly be very difficult at this time. The health hazard of this toxic material is increased however by the fact of the high water table in the area. Some exploratory soundings for the drums appear to be indicated.” A March 7, 2006 U.S. EPA letter stated that there were elevated levels of dioxin in the southwest portion of Landfill 3’s soil. Bartelt continued, “The shallow aquifer is said to act as a recharger for lower aquifers posing a further problem. Some precautionary pollution control steps may have to be considered in the future.”
Starr also gave this reporter the Final Focused Feasibility Study for Landfills from November 1999. The Air Force tested for 2,3,7-8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) and found the toxic compound in the surface soil in 14 out of 36 sites (page 63) and in the subsurface soil in 15 out of 40 sites (page 67).
That same day, Mason wrote that the DOD did not list Agent Orange usage at any Illinois site, and if the Air Force has the same conclusion, then “please understand where I’m coming from when I say that running a story that even suggests the possibility of something like Agent Orange being present will create a lot of confusion and concern that is not warranted, nor backed up by any evidence Illinois EPA is aware of.”
Evidence of Agent Orange at Chanute
The Air Force’s denial is a distinction without a difference. There is ample evidence the herbicide was used at Chanute, but it was not labeled as “Agent Orange” but by its chemical designation.
According to a March 1, 1979 article from the now defunct Morning Courier (Urbana, IL), 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T “are in use today and have been used since the 1950’s” at Chanute. The article continues, “During the Vietnam War, 2,4,5-T containing relatively large amounts of the toxic contaminant dioxin was used in a defoliant known as ‘Agent Orange.’ The Air Force said it is ‘safe to assume’ the contaminated herbicide was in use at Chanute during the same period.”
In an Air Force memo the Morning Courier received Jan. 30, 1979, Chanute information officers said herbicide and pesticide records were only available for 1978. A July 14, 1983 Air Force document said there was a “listing of chemicals used, quantities and treatment procedure by building (apparently pre-1975)” and “Pesticide Management Information from Base Entomology for the year 1974 (two memos and notes).” That document also mentions the state of Illinois and Chanute corresponded about “burial of hazardous waste and radioactive material, 1979.”
On Sept. 4, 2013, the Rantoul Press followed up with a story about the Air Force addressing issues at a RAB meeting on the skeet (munitions) range. The story also reiterated concerns about Chanute’s chemical and uncontrolled ground water contamination and potential Agent Orange disposition. Pictures of the polluted Heritage Lake (now under village control) also accompanied the story. The story challenged the Air Force and Illinois EPA about how they will address the proper demolition and disposal of White Hall and the steam plant, both significantly large structures with asbestos, mold and other contaminants.
Both government agencies failed to provide concrete answers.
Rantoul Press manager Tim Evans and Rantoul village administrator Bruce Sandahl discouraged any further reporting on Agent Orange and Chanute’s contamination.
Dioxin from Chanute in Local Water
In September and October, this reporter kept researching various Air Force, Illinois EPA and U.S. EPA documents concerning Chanute. Linda K. May, a controversial local activist, is a nurse and former Vermilion County health inspector in 1990 and 1991. (Vermilion is directly east of Rantoul.) May alleged private wells south of Chanute contained dioxin poisoning. Minutes of a Dec. 10, 1998 RAB meeting confirmed this assertion.
According to the October 1998 RAB transcript, the private wells of rural Rantoul residents Betty Panzer (1700 E County Rd 2798 N near Landfill 3), Gretchen Clifton (1800 E County Road 2784 N near Landfill 4) and Fredrick Ackerman (1771 E County Rd 2800 N near Landfill 4) were tested by the Air Force and contaminated with dioxins and furans. Gretchen Clifton declined to be interviewed, and Fredrick Ackerman left his residence before 2003 (according to the 2003 county plat book) while no housing structure remains at the 1771 E County Rd 2800 N address.
The Air Force—through contracting labs Triangle (Durham, N.C.) and RECRA in University Park (close to Chicago)— made this discovery in October 1998, but waited until a week before the Dec. 10, 1998 RAB meeting to notify the residents. At the meeting, Clifton asked the Air Force to pay for a private, independent lab to test the water instead of the Air Force or EPA. Officials told Clifton those tests would cost $5,000 per sample and they would not pay for the tests.
Betty Panzer, now 70-years-old, moved to her property in 1993. It sits across the street from the southwestern portion of Landfill 3, where the monstrous mound looms prominently from her window hundreds of feet away. In 1994, she had a new well built with new piping as the old one dried up. The new well was 10 feet west of the old one and was free of contaminants when first tested.
However, in 1998, lab results showed dioxin, furan and sodium contamination in her drinking well. Panzer is concerned that since she has the deepest private well (150 feet) in the area, and it was contaminated, why hasn’t the Air Force tested at deeper levels with their monitoring wells.
“I am concerned since this is the deepest well in the area, and it got polluted,” Panzer said. “They don’t want to test.”
The Air Force and Illinois EPA have reported there is massive ground water contamination in the Wisconsinian aquifer (up to 60 feet below the surface) and the Illinoian aquifer, which is 60-140 feet. Panzer’s contaminated well is 150 feet deep.
The Mahomet aquifer, from which Rantoul and more than 800,000 residents in around 90 communities get their drinking water, is 220-290 feet below the ground surface.
The Air Force and Illinois EPA have not tested the Mahomet aquifer and are not planning on testing it anytime soon despite the documentation of severe ground water pollution in the Wisconsinan and Illinoian aquifers.
Panzer looks much older than her age, and severe illnesses ravage her weakening body. She has lost her ability to walk and, if she gets to her walker, she slowly moves while hunched over. Panzer said she has a rash on her body and feels so weak that she’s fallen numerous times in January and “might have broken my nose” from one fall. Her doctor gave her a cardiogram and wants to administer an echocardiogram. He is worried about her heart.
Back in 1998, two of her dogs died, an Australian shepherd and a sheltie, and her daughter (who lived at the Rantoul residence until 1999) developed skin cancer, requiring half her nose to be amputated. Back in 1998, Panzer became very sick herself and could not fight off infections.
Panzer got skin cancer that she said went into remission “in 2006 or 2007.” She feels the Air Force and Illinois EPA are not doing a good job of safely addressing environmental concerns.
It does not help, Panzer said, that Rantoul and its residents want Chanute and its symbolic shadow to fade into the history books. “They just want to be able to get businesses here and not think anything is wrong,” Panzer said.
Panzer maintains the Illinois EPA promised to come to her residence “one or two times a year” to check her well, but no one has come “in the last 10 years or so.” She also stopped attending RAB meetings and asking the Air Force and Illinois EPA questions because “I felt intimidated because it seemed way over my head.”
The Government and Media Cover-Up
The Rantoul Press withdrew this reporter’s Freedom of Information Act request to the Illinois EPA on Dec. 3 about communication among the various agencies about environmental problems at Chanute. The Natural Resources News Service reapplied for the same FOIA material and received a reply on Dec. 24 about emails or memos concerning Chanute, Agent Orange, dioxin and various Illinois EPA workers from Oct. 15 to Dec. 9, 2013. The 338 pages of emails show constant communication among the Air Force, Illinois EPA and Chicago Brick & Iron, the Air Force contractor (formerly Shaw Environmental), about how to contain information about Agent Orange on Chanute.
The Illinois EPA is supposed to oversee the Air Force. Up to eight Illinois EPA officers were copied on the FOIA request.
On Oct. 16, Andrew Mason (Illinois EPA public relations) emailed high profile members of the Illinois government including Susan Hofer (Department of Financial and Professional Regulation), Kelly Jakubek (Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services spokeswoman), Ryan Yantis (Department of Veteran Affairs), Melaney Arnold (Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman), Glenn “Mike” Chrisman (Illinois National Guard) and Mike Claffey (Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission) and told them about Agent Orange being brought up in August and how he “…convinced TV stations to not run a story, but a rookie reporter with the Rantoul Press continued on…” and had a link to the story. The email was under “high importance” and its subject line was “Potential Veterans/Environmental Scam.” Mason then emailed Illinois State Police spokeswoman Monique Bond an hour later about the situation and said, “I briefed Illinois EPA counsel on it, too, …” and also forwarded the email to Grant Klinzman (Deputy Press Secretary of Gov. Pat Quinn).
Chris Hill, the Illinois EPA project manager at Chanute, and other Illinois EPA officials wanted to quickly update its Chanute site page after the Oct. 15 informational meeting and before the Nov. 21 RAB meeting to make it appear Chanute’s problems were in the past. There were three site summary updates from 1998-2010, but there have been three in 2013 alone. For an EPA site summary to be updated, it has to go through legal counsel.
Bob Carson, Illinois EPA National Priority Unit and Federal Facilities Unit manager, emailed Mason on Oct. 17 and said Hill talked to Ware and said “we believe they (Illinois Department of Public Health) interpreted the dioxin detections to be lab error. The Air Force did provide bottled water to some residents for a period of time, until they were able to verify that Chanute contamination was not present in their wells.” Carson did not mention the Air Force supplied bottled water for five to six years.
Carson also emailed Clarence Smith, Hill and Jay Timm on Oct. 17 under the subject head “RE: Rantoul Allegations” that “the information the Village provided to the Rantoul Press will hopefully blunt or stop the newspaper article. Time will tell” followed by a line redaction.
The Pressure Worked on Local Newspaper
Rantoul Press’ Dave Hinton and Tim Evans did delete the dioxin contaminated wells from the article, even though it was supported in Air Force and U.S. EPA and Illinois EPA documents.
Debra Rawlings is a former Rantoul Press reporter who covered the RAB and then became a RAB member. She wrote a letter to the editor on Sept. 11 in response to the Sept. 4 story on possible contaminants at Heritage Lake. On Oct. 18, Carson emailed five Illinois EPA employees saying, “Although our site summary won’t be ready until the end of Friday or early Monday… (three line redaction) letter to the edito (sic) regarding the article on Heritage Lake helped get some of the facts in front of the RP’s readers.”
On Oct. 19, Carson emailed Carroll and said “my intent is to respond to Mr. Bajek in writing and not participate in an oral interview” and Carson told Clarence Smith on Nov. 7, “We briefed Andrew (Mason) and he suggested offering Bajek an opportunity to submit his questions via e-mail.” Both organizations from that time on refused to conduct oral interviews unless at a RAB meeting.
On Oct. 21, the Air Force and Illinois EPA worked together on a media statement about dioxin contaminated private wells, even though the Illinois EPA is supposed to exercise oversight of the Air Force. The directions have seven redacted lines. Both agencies went back and forth for several emails and most of the communication is redacted.
On Oct. 22, Rantoul village administrator Bruce Sandahl forwarded Carson and Carroll an email from the former airman, Michael Glasser, who had alleged Agent Orange contamination at the base, that stated he wanted to interview Sandahl and Rantoul Mayor Chuck Smith for his documentary on Chanute. The email said both officials did not agree to an interview. Smith told the Rantoul Press for the first Agent Orange story on Aug. 28 that he called Glasser, while Sandahl said he wanted to go “through the proper channels.”
“They are both lying (as no calls were made),” Glasser said in November.
On Nov. 14, Illinois EPA Chanute Project manager Hill emailed Carson saying, “Paul Carroll is bringing in a seasoned public affairs person from McClellan AFB (Linda Geissinger) for this meeting. We’re doing a dry run of the meeting on Wednesday afternoon and we may want to tie in, via teleconference the people from Springfield who will be attending on Thursday. did you know Clarence (Smith) is planning to attend?” Carson answered, “We need to find a plan to concisely present facts to dispel these rumors.”
Sandahl (the village administrator) on Nov. 14 emailed Carroll, asking him to come to the Rantoul Food Hub initiative “to talk about the soil environmental conditions that I briefly discussed with you and Chris Hill? (sic) Because of Doug Rokke and some articles in the news a couple of months ago, some people are nervous about growing vegetables anywhere on Chanute. I think we can make a good public relations initiative out of this.” The public relations comment was redacted on another email. (Rokke is the RAB member who had spoken publicly about the possibility of Agent Orange being on the base.)
Hill emailed Richard Breckenridge (Illinois EPA Agricultural and Rural Affairs Advisor) and Carson on Nov. 15 saying he, the Air Force and Chanute contractors will meet with Sandahl on the Rantoul Food Hub initiative meeting on Nov. 20.
Clarence Smith emailed four Illinois EPA employees that “she (Geissinger) would like to talk with Andrew (Mason) prior to the RAB meeting on Thursday.”
Clarence Smith again emailed Illinois EPA members that Hill was working most of Nov. 19 with Carroll “on how to provide the Rantoul Press with information about the former installation.”
On Nov. 21 at 9:20 a.m., Clarence Smith emailed Mason, Carson, Hill and Scott Philips about needing a phone number so he and others could be in the meeting between “the Air Force, Illinois EPA and the Rantoul Press reporter, Bob Bajek. … and probably the rural affairs advisor from the Lieutenant Governor’s Office (Maggie Carson).”
Clarence Smith after the Nov. 21 meeting emailed Phillips, Mason, Carson, Hill and Timm and described his account of the meeting. He stated, “The meeting was charged at the beginning with Mr. Bob Bajek … badgering most everyone with the Air Force prior to the meeting.” He went on to say that Rawlings “presented factual information” on Rokke that “publically humiliated and discredited” him.
The email continued, saying Smith called the Rantoul Police Department (RPD) when Rokke left the room. Sandahl “also contacted the RPD regarding Mr. Rokke’s behavior” with seven cops coming to the meeting.
Smith made the call “instinctively and individually out of an abundance of caution based on observed behavior.” Smith called Sandahl around 4 p.m., and “he (Sandahl) indicated that he had just finished the debriefing with his Chief of Police (Paul Farber) came on the incident…. Mr. Sandahl went further to state that in his debriefing with the Rantoul Police that the discussion indicated that the situation could have had a much more disastrous outcome.”
On Feb. 7, both Farber and Sandahl denied Sandahl made a call to the Rantoul Police Department concerning Rokke. Farber said Clarence Smith had “erroneous information.” The Illinois EPA spokeswoman Kim Biggs on Feb. 14 said she did not know why Clarence Smith would say that and “couldn’t speak for him” and “are you trying to make Clarence look bad? What’s your angle here?”
Sandahl was fired by Rantoul Mayor Chuck Smith on Feb. 28, “citing personnel regulations,” by the Rantoul Press.
The Illinois EPA on Jan. 22 denied another Natural Resources News Service FOIA request for emails or memos about Chanute, dioxin, Agent Orange and various people from Aug. 15 – Oct. 14. Illinois EPA FOIA officer Tom Reuter stated that the 663 emails and any attachments would be “extremely time-consuming” to collect, “and would place an undue burden on the Illinois EPA FOIA staff.”
The Natural Resources News Service is submitting a request to the Public Access Counselor of the Office of the Attorney General to challenge Illinois EPA’s FOIA denial.
Many people interviewed and consulted for this story have voiced concerns that controversy over the landfill in the nearby community of Clinton – there is concern about PCBs from the Clinton Landfill potentially contaminating the Mahomet aquifer over time – is a distraction by the Illinois EPA from the real issue about how the Mahomet aquifer could be contaminated by Chanute and a danger to the Village of Rantoul’s water supply.
The Mahomet aquifer supplies water to around 750,000 – 800,000 people from dozens of Central Illinois communities, with the population expected to grow to 900,000 in 2020. The region is also worried about how population growth could increase the Mahomet aquifer’s usage by 68 percent by 2050, most likely causing a water shortage.
Chanute’s Controversial Cleanup Funds
The Air Force’s cleanup efforts at Chanute have been underfunded, and there are wide discrepancies in how much the Air Force has actually spent on environmental remediation. In May 2013, that figure was reported as $100 million. Back in 2006, it was $110 million. In 2001, the Rantoul Press reported that Rantoul would receive $100 million for a project that was estimated to cost $230 million.
Leaking underground storage tanks (many leaked chemicals) were removed before base closure, while deteriorating asbestos-insulated steam lines in the OU-2 area were removed in 2009.
Three of the four landfills were not capped until 2003-04, and the last not until 2011. The Air Force completed leachete collection systems designed to prevent water that has come into contact with contaminants at Landfills 1-3 from reaching Salt Fork Creek. However, only the Landfill 2 leachete collection system is online.
In January 2006, the Air Force and a consultant, International Risk Group LLC, disagreed about how much it would cost to finish a proper environmental restoration at Chanute. The Air Force estimated $50 million, while IRG estimated it would take $100-$130 million. IRG did not get the contract.
In a May 10, 2007 News-Gazette article, Illinois EPA federal site remediation manager Clarence Smith said the DOD money was going towards the Iraq War instead of Chanute. That was not a coincidence.
“Budgetarily, it is clear that Air Force dollars for the cleanup are getting scarce,” Smith said. “The United States war effort is soaking up a lot of cleanup dollars. It’s tough all over.” Smith continued by saying he believed the Air Force ineffectively went about Chanute’s environmental remediation during peacetime when “money was more plentiful.”
In September 2008, the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry reported that tests confirm the landfills contain “a variety of inorganic and organic contaminants, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs), chlorinated pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), herbicides, dioxins/furans and metals.”
In December 2008, Shaw Environmental Inc. (which merged with Chicago Brick & Iron in 2013) signed a performance-based contract worth $38.7 million to finish the cleanup by September 2016. In the early 1970s, Landfill 4 received residential garbage, shop wastes, and construction/demolition debris, according to the Illinois EPA. Shaw consolidated and capped Landfill 4, removed the asbestos-laden steam lines and closed some CERCLA sites. Despite this, the interim Record of Decision for the Landfills and the BCT Oct. 1, 2005 project deadline, these are the only signed scheduled cleanups for Chanute.
The U.S. EPA’s withdrew as an overseer in 2010 because Chanute was not on the National Priorities List, delegating oversight duties solely to the Illinois EPA. The Illinois EPA fails to exercise oversight of the Air Force and DOD. Clearly, all the government agencies – federal, state and local – responsible for the environmental integrity of Chanute have cozy relationships.
Rantoul is one of hundreds of communities across the United States and around the world that is forced to deal with the aftermath of a heavily polluted military installation. These abandoned bases have left toxic environmental and economic legacies that government officials would rather deny than restore.
A documented environmental history of Chanute Air Force available here.