Gov. Bruce Rauner is stepping into a years-long fight over dumping construction debris close to drinking-water supplies, an issue that pits Chicago against southwest suburban communities.

The Rauner administration is backing a bill in the Illinois legislature that would require groundwater testing around quarries that accept some broken concrete, rock, brick, stone and dirt from construction sites. It aims to protect nearby wells that provide water to communities, especially in Will County where at least nine construction dumping sites would be affected.

The roots of the issue date back to a legendary public feud between ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his powerful father-in-law, then-Chicago Alderman Richard Mell over one of those Will County dump sites. Mell had ties to a site in Joliet because his wife’s cousin, Frank Schmidt (pictured above), owned the quarry operation. After the family feud, two state laws were passed to regulate some of the dumping — neither of which settled disputes about the environmental precautions required.

Passing the new Rauner-backed measure isn’t likely to be easy. The city of Chicago, quarry owners, construction companies and others spent years fighting such a requirement, saying testing isn’t needed because only non-toxic materials that pose little threat to drinking water are allowed in quarries, large pits also used to extract rock and stone. Only “clean” construction debris goes to the quarries, which charge far less for dumping than more heavily regulated landfills, they argue.

clean trash dumping in Illinois quarries

Officials in Will County, where quarries accept construction debris, disagree. They say monitoring what goes into the massive pits without water testing is risky and quarries should face at least some of the same environmental oversight that landfills face.

“It would cause folks to be more vigilant about what they let in,” said Illinois Rep. Margo McDermed (R-Mokena), who said she is sponsoring legislation on behalf of Rauner, a Republican.

>> Read this story at the Sun-Times

The governor’s support is not the only environmental cause the Republican has recently endorsed. In January, Rauner, who has signaled he will run for re-election in 2018, signed a bill requiring Illinois schools and daycare centers to test their water for lead.

In December, Rauner signed the Exelon nuclear power bailout bill, which pleased several environmental groups because it contained a number of renewable energy initiatives that potentially cuts the state’s production of carbon dioxide, which pollutes the air.

Rauner is “supportive of clean water and protecting our groundwater resources” the governor’s office said in an emailed statement.

A similar bill, sponsored by Rep. Emily McAsey (D-Lockport), is backed by Will County officials who also support the McDermed bill.

Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan doesn’t have a position on either bill, said his spokesman Steve Brown. “Let the groups work the process and see how it evolves,” Brown said. “It’s probably better if the groups sit down and talk it through.”

The clean landfill issue took a central role in Illinois politics when Blagojevich — fearing he might get caught in a political maelstrom — shut down the Joliet quarry in 2005 because he said he feared Schmidt was accepting banned materials. Blagojevich publicized the move, trying to demonstrate independence from his political patron, Mell. 

 Richard Mell
   Richard Mell | Sun-Times photo

But Mell blasted Blagojevich for grandstanding and raised questions about the governor’s fundraising practices, a precursor to issues that ultimately lead to Blagojevich’s corruption convictions. The alderman himself was pulled into a Will County lawsuit that alleged he was a secret co-owner of the Joliet site, a claim he denied.

A lawyer for Mell, Dennis Berkson, reiterated in an interview with the Better Government Association that Mell never was an owner. Berkson and the plaintiff’s lawyer also said the suit was dropped and dismissed last year. That site, now called Chicago Street CCDD, was taken over by a new owner in 2008, and Schmidt pleaded guilty years later on an unrelated federal tax evasion charge.

Following the Mell dustup, Blagojevich pushed through a law that went into effect in 2008 and set terms on waste that can be hauled to a quarry. 

But quarry owners found the rules too restrictive and pushed for a change in 2010 allowing them to accept construction debris deemed to be non-toxic though not mandating water testing.

Spotlight: Will County “clean” fill quarries

Will County has more quarries accepting “clean” construction debris than any other county in Illinois. Local officials worry that the materials may leach contaminants into area wells used for drinking water. (Source: Illinois EPA)

Ever since, controversy has erupted over the dumping of so-called clean construction debris, a term suggesting the materials don’t present a contamination threat to nearby water sources.

“It smells to me,” Will County Board Speaker James Moustis said, referring to the opposition to water testing. “What’s that tell you? They know they’re going to contaminate the water sooner or later.”

The impetus for the law was to allow contractors to dump seemingly safer material in quarries, a much cheaper dumping ground than landfills that must adhere to stricter mandated environmental regulation. Landfill owners, including Waste Management, supported nearby water testing for the quarries, which are competitors to the landfills.

The problem with the 2010 law, critics say, is that the legislation didn’t specify the need for groundwater testing. The Illinois Pollution Control Board considered arguments for and against water testing near the quarry dumps and ruled that no such monitoring was necessary, a move that enraged Will officials.

“It’s been one of the major issues for the county,” said Brent Hassert, a former state legislator who now lobbies for Will County. “I don’t want to cry wolf. We just want to make sure we’re presenting something to the constituents of Will County so they know we’re doing everything to protect the water supply.”

Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan are fighting the pollution rule-making board, by appealing the groundwater testing decision in court. The case is pending in state appellate court.

For its part, the head of the state pollution board says panel members made their determination after testimony from interested parties. If the legislature mandates water testing is needed, the pollution board will help set the rules.

“If that’s what the legislature wants to do, we’ll do whatever the law requires,” said Gerald Keenan, chairman of the state pollution panel. “We don’t have a position one way or the other.”

The Rauner appointee added: “We’re a tribunal. Parties provide us with evidence and legal arguments.”

Brian Lansu, a lawyer for quarry lobbying group Land Reclamation and Recycling Association, said the testing “is not justified” and years of public testimony and hearings by the pollution board helped decide the issue, he added.

“Our position is [the board] considered this issue a few years ago,” Lansu said.

Michael Vondra, an asphalt magnate, campaign contributor and government contractor, as well as other construction companies, helped found Land Reclamation but no longer sits on the group’s board, Lansu said. Vondra had ties to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and also donated to Blagojevich. Vondra’s name came up during a testimony in Blagojevich’s trials because the governor discussed whether to try to pressure Vondra for campaign cash.

While the quarry dumping saves contractors money, the state still has landfill capacity. In 2015, the Chicago metropolitan area had enough landfill capacity to last around 13.5 years, according to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. The state as a whole had enough landfill capacity for almost 21 years, the report said.

“Clean” Fill Applications in Illinois

Though Will County has the most quarries accepting construction debris, the sites are found throughout Illinois. This data set gives the address of the permitted fill applications in the state. (Source: Illinois EPA)

KEY DOCUMENTS: ‘Clean Trash’ Dumping

ILLINOIS EPA: Clean construction or
demolution debris regulations

Docket regarding rules on dumping