Illinois Balefill's Future All Tied Up

The state of Illinois has gone to great lengths to block a proposed Bartlett balefill in Cook County. In early June, the state added to its budget a $22 million proposal to buy the site of the planned Bartlett balefill from the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County (SWANCC), Des Plaines, Ill.

The 143-acre site, located in the farthest southwestern portion of Cook County bordering DuPage and Kane counties, has been the subject of contentious debate for more than 16 years, when SWANCC bought the site from a strip mining company that no longer had a use for the land.

Cook County would like to see the balefill site turned into a tri-county state park and wildlife habitat for migratory birds. But SWANCC hopes the balefill will be built to dispose of waste from the 23 communities it serves.

Beginning in 1989, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency granted SWANCC a permit to build the balefill. However, bitter battles have been brewing since that time between SWANCC and local environmentalists, legislators and organizations who see serious dangers to developing the property as a disposal site.

Opponents argue that SWANCC should have to reapply for its siting permit because the balefill was permitted before 1991, prior to when Illinois lawmakers made environmental standards for waste disposal stricter, and because Cook County was exempt from certain landfill regulations at the time.

In Oct. 2000, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington, D.C., stalled the project, but ultimately, it was unsuccessful in stopping the balefill entirely [see “Landfill Siting Case Reaches U.S. Supreme Court,” Waste Age Dec. 2000, page 35]. The Corps argued that migratory birds use the site's seasonal ponds, so it should be used as a wildlife habitat, but the U.S. Supreme Court rejected this notion based on jurisdictional issues.

Following this hearing, it looked as if the balefill would be built. But state Sen. Doris C. Karpiel, R-Carol Stream, sponsored Senate Bill 356 in early May to amend the current Illinois Environmental Protection Act to force SWANCC to start the permitting process over. State representative Carole Pankau, R-Roselle, sponsored the legislation once it entered the House.

One amendment to the bill stated that any siting of a landfill near an adjoining county must be approved by all affected counties. An aquifer located directly below the site provides water to more than 500,000 people in the area.

The other amendment stated that any landfill contract with a permit that had not accepted waste in the past 10 years or more is expired. Currently, the SWANCC permit has no time limit on it and no construction has taken place.

The bill passed in the state Senate in April by a vote of 55-2. Afterward, it was sent to the House Environment and Energy Committee, where it passed by a slim 9-8 margin with the help of U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, a long-time opponent of the project who urged state legislators to pass the bill.

However, since the House session ended before a vote was made, the measure will be brought up again during the fall session.

As a result, Sen. Karpiel and other opponents have decided to take matters into their own hands. SWANCC, which has paid more than $30 million in expenses over the course of 16 years for the balefill, has said it is willing to sell the site to anyone — but not for less than what it has already spent. So in addition to the $22 million included in the county budget to buy the site, Karpiel says an additional $9 million will be available to assist with the buyout. This $9 million will come from revenues from either selling part of the previously owned SWANCC site or by building on it, she says.

Currently, SWANCC has not made a decision on the offer, and the budget sits on Illinois Governor George Ryan's desk awaiting approval.

At press time, Governor Ryan was expected to have passed the budget before its July 1 deadline. Ryan, a long-time opponent of the project, reportedly has received a lot of pressure from groups who want to stop the balefill.

Karpiel and Mary Byrne, president of the local nonprofit Citizens Against the Balefill (CAB), Bartlett, Ill., however, aren't ready to celebrate.

“You never know in negotiations like this what turns up,” Karpiel says. “[SWANCC] may want more.”

According to Byrne, “if SWANCC does not accept the buyout offer,” it should “be prepared for years more of battle because we will fight to the bitter end to see that they have to go back to square one.”

Byrne ultimately doesn't understand why SWANCC has continued to try to build the facility. “When the U.S. [Department of] Fish and Wildlife states that [the site] is part of one of the last contiguous forests in the region … and when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has stated that it is an inherently unsuitable site for a landfill and should be regarded as a site of last resort, for SWANCC to continue to pursue it is mind-blowing,” Byrne says.

However, SWANCC says the site will be safe. “We believe the project exceeds all regulations,” says Brooke Beale, executive director for SWANCC, in the May 5-6 edition of the Kane County Chronicle. “We will provide a tremendous cost savings, a safe and environmental solution to solid waste disposal.”

Nevertheless, opponents argue the site is a dangerous place to put the balefill. Two-thousand-pound garbage bales will be stacked and sunk 40 feet into the water table, Byrne says. “It will be shipped as far away from their backyards as possible.” It's just a matter of time before the stacks leak into the aquifers, she adds.

While there's still a long way to go for all involved, Karpiel hopes the Governor accepts the budget. After that, it will be up to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to start negotiations with SWANCC.