Chanute environmental cleanup group calls it a day

Excavation of an oil/water separator and contaminated soil is among the environmental cleanup projects that have been completed at the former Chanute Air Force Base.

RANTOUL — The environmental cleanup of the former Chanute Air Force Base property has been a lengthy venture. And it’s been a costly venture.

As of last September, $189 million had been spent cleaning up the former military base that was formed May 21, 1917 at the start of the U.S. involvement in World War I.

RAB group

Four members of the Chanute Restoration Advisory Board — the citizens group that was charged with input and oversight of environmental cleanup at the former base — gathered for the board’s final meeting on Thursday. Shown are, from left, front row, RAB member Doug Rokke; Paul Carroll, the Air Force environmental coordinator; and RAB members Ian Wang and Debra Rawlings; back row, Chris Hill of the Illinois EPA who is a former RAB member, and RAB member Jack Anderson. Not pictured are RAB members Lorraine Wirges and Caryl Fothergill.

It was 1993 when the base closed. For the past 25 years,  a citizens group — the Restoration Advisory Board — has helped to oversee and provide input in the environmental cleanup. Last Thursday was its last meeting — almost 102 years to the day after the founding of Chanute Field.

Four of the six current RAB members were present for the final meeting — Debra Rawlings, Jack Anderson, Doug Rokke and Ian Wang. Lorraine Wirges and Caryl Fothergill were not present.

Paul Carroll, the Air Force environmental coordinator for the former base, estimated 12 to 13 members of the public had served on RAB.

Also present at the meetings have been various officials from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Air Force and contractors hired to do cleanup operations.

It’s these officials who have the technical expertise for cleanup. The RAB members represented the public. Chris Hill of the Illinois EPA is a former RAB regulatory member.

The RAB discontinuation doesn’t mean the handful of remaining cleanup operations will be done in secret. The Air Force will continue to keep the public abreast of the final remediation through  periodic public meetings, newsletters and press releases.  

Howard Sparrow of Aptim Federal Services, which has been contracted for much of the work, said 60 sites on base were targeted for cleanup. All but five but have been remediated, and those that remain are nearly completed.

Most of the cleanup came via the U.S. Environmental Superfund.

“Over the years we have done a lot of soil excavation,” Sparrow said. “Added up all (of it)  totals 23,200 tons of soil (and debris) excavated, all of it taken to landfills.”

Debris included concrete oil/water separators, concrete foundations and general construction debris.

A major project early in the process was capping Landfill 4.

Other remediation has involved cleanup  of “quite a bit of groundwater. Most of it was chlorinated solvents,” Sparrow said. “There was some petroleum contamination. The total area treated was about 10 acres spread over 20-30 locations.”

Microorganisms were used to decompose the chlorinated solvent material, which Sparrow said has been “very effective.”

Approximately 359,700 square feet of groundwater has been treated. There are four sites remaining that are undergoing monitoring and/or “remedial process optimization.”

He said a large amount of asbestos was removed from base sites, with much of it in the old air museum building and the huge White Hall, which is a “nice, clean site now.” A total of 52,721 tons of material (in nearly 3,000 truckloads) was removed from the White Hall property, most of which was recycled.

In total, asbestos was abated from 17 buildings, with it being found in areas ranging from floor tiles to pipe insulation to door and window caulking.

Two old base water towers were removed, but another was sandblasted, repainted and put back into use for village water service.

Of the five remaining sites to be cleaned up, one — the old laundromat site — has met its cleanup goals and is awaiting final documentation.

Another locale is near a fire-training site.

Perhaps the most challenging one remaining is Building 995 in the southwest part of the former base.

“It will continue to be a challenge for a while,” Sparrow said. “It still has some chlorinated solvents there in the groundwater. We have made huge progress, but we haven’t gotten to the groundwater cleanup part.”

Landfills on the ex-base will remain in the operational-monitoring phase, and the Air Force continues to sample and monitor the groundwater near them. An evapotranspiration buffer of willow and poplar trees was installed around those landfills.

Some residual low levels of lead was found near a former trap range that will be cleaned up.

An area of environmental uncertainty still on base are emerging contaminants — chemicals whose risks posed to human health and the environment are not fully understood. Those contaminants on base are 1,4-dioxane, perfluorooctane sulfonic acid  (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

Carroll said the Air Force and EPA are waiting for word on what levels are considered dangerous. The bad news is those chemicals are on the former base. The good news is they’re not going anywhere because of the tight soil there.

He said on one other site (not Chanute), that is not the case. Chemicals there migrated  for miles.

“But Chanute has not migrated,” Carroll said.

Rokke said until the standards are released, the areas that contain the contaminants should be isolated.

“That’s what we’re doing,” Carroll said. “Nothing has migrated. In those areas we are putting restricted covenants to make sure nobody is drinking that water.”

Carroll said the Air Force checked private wells in the area and determined no PFOS or PFOA were present.

A member of the public, asked Carroll if any testing had been done for PFOS or PFOA near the airport runways since crops are planted near them and fire training was conducted. Carroll said testing did take place at the fire-training sites.

“That’s part of the remedial process that we have planned,” Carroll said.

Rokke asked whether crops being grown near there should be analyzed.

“We can’t legally spend money on ... subjective information that we don’t have some regulation to support,” Carroll said. “When we get to that point, we will.”

PFOS and PFOA chemicals are used in a variety of common items used by the public. Only in recent years have there been questions on their effect and at what levels.

Said Rawlings, “It would certainly be helpful if manufacturers would have to prove that their products were safe before their release, wouldn’t it?”  

When the entire cleanup is done, 2,200 acres will have been transferred to the village of Rantoul by the end of 2021. More than 1,900 acres have has already been transferred.