MACOMB — Brownfields, or sites containing harmful contaminants affecting the environment and public health, exist in many communities across the nation.
Such sites can range from the presence of petroleum products in the ground to the presence of lead in paints or asbestos in siding and old tile floors. It’s a factor that can affect whole communities in both a public health sense and economic impact.
West-central Illinois has been granted $600,000 to go toward the administration of “Phase 1” research and testing of possible brownfield sites. The aim of the grant is to help communities begin the process for cleaning up and redeveloping “underutilized properties.”
“EPA’s Brownfields Program expands the ability of communities to recycle vacant and abandoned properties for new, productive reuses, using existing infrastructure," said former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt at the time of the award in April 2018. "These grants leverage other public and private investments, and improve local economies through property cleanup and redevelopment.”
It’s not always what’s visible that creates problems. Testing on a number of levels can determine contaminants and begin the process of moving forward with site remediation.
Prairie Hills Resource Conservation and Development Inc., based in Macomb, is in charge of using the EPA grant in its six-county service area, which includes the cities of Macomb, Galesburg, Monmouth, Canton and Carthage.
Prairie Hills Executive Director David King stressed to the McDonough Voice that the grant is for assessment purposes and not for actual clean-up; however his organization can help property owners take further steps toward applying for grant-based clean-up assistance.
If a contaminant is found, there is no obligation for a property owner to proceed with a clean-up or apply for such funding.
“The reason being is it’s private property,” King said. “They can choose to do with it what they want. The whole purpose of this is to spur economic development. If the property is not being sold because of a known brownfield or a potential site…if you do a Phase 1 assessment…in the case of petroleum, the Illinois EPA has to send a letter of no further remedial action. That means it’s not contaminated. That can be an old gas station, or maybe an old site that had a car mechanic’s place. Somewhere where they change oil or antifreeze. Sometimes they might’ve just dumped it out back. But everyone in the community knows what the previous land use was. The owner can’t sell it (because of that). And a bank won’t give a loan if they think it’s contaminated. So the whole purpose of these community assessments is to get the landowner’s permission. We get the access agreement. Phase 1’s can be done sitting at a desk because there’s a lot of data. If our consultant says, ‘Yeah, we should probably do a Phase 2,’ that means a contractor with a drill rig will go out and take core samples. Then the samples are sent to a laboratory. They determine what the contaminant is. Then part of the assessment grant also is there’s a redevelopment and reuse plan. How it would be cleaned up.”
A data search through the Illinois EPA notes two Macomb sites receiving state brownfield remediation grants as located at 1400 W. Jackson St., the former Imperial Gas Station, and at 311 N. Pearl St., the former Pearl Street Dry Cleaners.
Part of the further discussion for the next step, according to King, means having a discussion with the landowner with regard to whether they want to sell the property or proceed with turning it into a green space. That is all part of the redevelopment and reuse phase.
King said the public should be concerned with brownfields because they are often part of a larger public eyesore. And in the case of contaminants in the soil, any movement in the subsoil can cause the material to “percolate back up.” King used the Ameren property at Carroll Street and Route 136 in Macomb as an example of a confirmed brownfield site. Contaminants came from the era when coal was converted into gas, and residual coal tar seeped into the ground.
Regulated Building Material Surveys are also available as part of the EPA assessment grant process. These surveys would look for such things as lead, mold, mercury and asbestos in buildings.
King said there have been 24 site nominations, and a brownfield advisory board has been established. Of the 24 sites nominated so far, communications have only been going on with three property owners.
“The tough part right now is getting access agreements. Properties are in various ownerships, or a landowner could not be paying property taxes,” King said.
Of the 24 nominated sites, King said Prairie Hills has acquired three access agreements.
“It’s a long process,” he said. “It takes awhile, that’s why this is a three year program. Oct. 1, 2018-Sept. 30, 2019, is the first year…We need not only the landowner, but the local unit of government also. Because we are often dealing with eyesores, it is to the unit of government’s benefit to sign the access agreement as well. It shows a spirit of transparency and cooperation.”
King noted the recent access agreements were in Monmouth and Carthage.
Christopher Merrett with the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs underscores not only the possible environmental and public health risks associated with brownfield sites, but also economic factors. IIRA is one of Prairie Hills’ partners in the brownfield project.
“There are a ton of hoops to jump through. In some instances, a derelict brownfield may be owned by a private interest. The community may recognize that the brownfield is devaluing surrounding properties, is a community eyesore, is a burden on the local tax base, and is a public health nuisance. As a derelict private property, tax revenues generated from the property may be very low,” Merrett told the Voice. “The first hoop may be to convince the land owner to sell the property or to enter into some sort of partnership to help remediate the property. Once the ownership of the property is clear, and there is agreement that remediation should happen, then testing for soil and building materials contamination needs to occur to determine what actual contaminants are present. This can help determine some of the costs related to remediation. If the property is owned by the community, there should also be a planning process to help the community determine how the cleaned up land should be used. Should the property be sold back to a private interest for commercial or rental purposes? Should the land be converted into green space such as a downtown pocket park? These are just some of the issues that need to be addressed. Given the possible legal implications, we not only need planners, architects, soil scientists, and engineers involved, we also need to involve environmental law specialists to ensure new owners have no exposure to future lawsuits.”
Although the process from site assessment to remediation can be a long one, it cannot begin without community involvement.
More information on Prairie Hills and the brownfield program can be found online at An online form to notify the organization of a potential brownfield site is also on the website. Those without internet access or who wish to suggest a site by phone may call 309-833-4747. Members of the public, even if they do not own the suspected brownfield property, are welcome to report sites.

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