Activists Protest Sludge-Burning Facility

Illinois Waste-Burning Site Gets Public Hearing

Environmentalists are fighting plans to build a sludge-burning facility in Zion, Ill., because the facility would spew toxic mercury into the air.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to decide by April whether to issue a permit for the $40 million plant, which the North Shore (Chicago) Sanitary District says would be an alternative to burying sludge in a landfill.

But environmentalists say releasing mercury--a potent neurotoxin that can cause birth defects--is too steep a price to pay.

"Our air already is polluted, and this only adds to it--and with some fairly nasty things," Lake County Conservation Alliance board member Susan Zingle said.

Two years ago, the EPA had given permission to build the plant in Waukegan, but dropped those plans after the suburb went to court to stop them.

Zion city officials, however, say they would welcome the plant as a way to jump-start a new industrial park that could generate millions of dollars in property-tax revenue.

"This could help us clean up an entire area that could be used for a light manufacturing complex," Zion Mayor Lane Harrison said.

The sanitary district, which serves more than 300,000 customers from the Wisconsin state line to Highland Park and from Lake Michigan to the Tri-State Tollway, currently puts the sludge in a landfill on property it owns near Zion. The new plant would use a drying and heating process to convert sludge into a ceramic or glasslike byproduct used in road construction.

Officials from the taxpayer-funded agency say the plant would emit less than 2 pounds of mercury annually; state EPA rules would permit 92 pounds.

But environmentalists say even 2 pounds eventually would find its way into Lake Michigan, which already is under a fish-consumption advisory issued by the federal government because of mercury in the water.

The Lake Michigan Federation, the Illinois Sierra Club and the conservation alliance fought plans to build the plant in Waukegan before the sanitary district decided to build it in Zion instead. Pressure from the groups helped persuade the district to invest in equipment to lower the plant's mercury emissions from 33 pounds as originally proposed to less than 2 pounds annually.

The district already has invested millions of dollars in the plant and purchased equipment. District officials expect the plant to be running by December 2005, Jensen said. But environmentalists said they won't give up, even if the EPA issues a permit.

The Chicago Tribune

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