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Southwest Champaign Subdivisions Pose Potential Threats to Residents

People seeking peace and quiet in a prim, newly-minted subdivision on the western periphery of Champaign may be getting more than they bargained for. For years, the city of Champaign has stacked subdivisions on its outskirts. Several of the newest residential subdivisions are in the vicinity of an aging industrial corridor, where an oil storage facility releases toxic chemicals into the air. Marathon Petroleum Company, located on South Staley Road in southwest Champaign, is within about a quarter mile radius of several residential areas. In Champaign’s frenzy to develop outward, several residentially-zoned subdivisions with names like “Trails at Abbey Field” or “Crowwood” have been approved near the facility. According to the city of Champaign’s map of active subdivisions, 119 housing units are slated to be built southwest of the facility. Another 352 are set to be built to the southeast.

According to 2006 EPA data, the year the most recent data is available, Marathon Petroleum emitted just under 7,000 pounds of chemicals known to cause damage to the human nervous system, or cancer. The company emits these chemicals legally, as no local regulatory agency manages these emissions, which are permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency. Marathon Petroleum did not respond to several inquires for comment.

One such toxic emission is the carcinogen benzene, which, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, takes a few days to break down completely once emitted. It can cause leukemia and weaken the immune systems of those exposed to it. In addition, it can cling to snow and fall back to the ground. Marathon Petroleum also emitted 500 pounds of ethylbenzene. According to information from the National Library of Medicine, even small amounts of this chemical can be very harmful, causing nervous system disorders and inflammation of the upper respiratory tract in people exposed to it. In 2006, the facility also emitted 255 pounds of 1,2,4-trimethylbenzene, a chemical that can cause infection of the lungs.

It’s difficult to nail down just how big a threat these emissions pose to the public. Blustery Midwestern winds may dissipate the chemicals as they travel the quarter mile to nearby housing; but they could also blow the chemicals into a subdivision. Ernest Chiodo, a physician, attorney, industrial hygienist and form director of the Detroit Health Department, says that even if a facility is in compliance with all OSHA and EPA standards it does not guarantee the safety of people living in the vicinity of it. Chiodo says that the chemicals released from Marathon Petroleum have the potential to pose significant health hazards for people, including neurological damage. He points out that the chemicals can be absorbed into the ground, making the soil toxic. Chiodo also adds that fugitive emissions, which often come from leaks in the facility, are typically the most hazardous. Marathon Petroleum emits 2,717 pounds of chemicals in fugitive emissions, according to the most recent EPA data.

Dennis Stainken, a consultant with the New Jersey-based Princeton-Somerset Group, Inc., said in an e-mail exchange that air quality and soil and water contamination are all worth considering with such developments. Chiodo points out that there is no quick and easy way to determine if the facility is safe, and doesn’t know how big a threat the facility poses, if any at all. However, he says that the city should have had experts, including industrial hygienists, conduct serious testing in the area surrounding the facility to assess its risk.

“You have to have the right people looking at this,” said Chiodo.

“The site was built in an industrial corridor alongside a train track before residential development expanded into the area,” said Lacey Rains, a planner with the city of Champaign. She also pointed out that the city is aware of the facility and has placed buffers around it. A strip directly to the west is zoned light industrial. The land directly to the south is undeveloped. Land to the east and north is either undeveloped or zoned industrial. However, a few blocks to the south in a commercially-zoned area is a day care. Chiodo says that the chemicals emitted by Marathon Petroleum are of particular concern for children. Rains says that the city had done no testing of the type Chiodo recommends.

Ken Pirok, who represents a neighboring area on city council, said that he never recalls the facility being brought up as an issue of concern. Neither does at-large City Council Member Karen Foster. Tom Bruno, another of the city’s at-large members, said in an e-mail exchange that “homeowners will be well advised to consider their neighbors when they purchase homes. Environmental issues are usually best handled by state government. The expertise needed to analyze exposures is usually not something we at the City would have on staff. Some folks will always choose safety over other factors and for some they will choose price and location over noise and toxic conditions.”

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