By Don Sorchych | June 17, 2009
Most of us remember our town of birth with fondness and I could write a book about my town of birth and high school education.
Depue exists in the Illinois River Valley, about 95 miles from then and now corrupt Chicago, and about 50 miles from Peoria. French explorers abounded and Joliet, Lasalle, Peru, and Peoria all hug the Illinois River in honor of the French explorer’s names, long gone and forgotten.
My daughter Dawn lives in Florida and she sent me a link to a Depue video (www.villageofdepue.com), which speaks to the major town asset, its lake, which is “hot” or hopelessly toxic with heavy metals.
Depue hosts annual motorboat races, Lake Depue is ideal for races since it is a very large backwater of the Illinois River and usually has a calm surface, ideal for high speed boat racing. The events draw large crowds from all over the country.
Today, and for many years, Depue has been a Super Fund site.
When I was a child, the local employer was the New Jersey Zinc Company, a refinery, which employed most of the town’s 2,500 citizens. New Jersey Zinc Company had its major operations in Palmerton, Pennsylvania. Those plants were unionized and Depue was a hedge against strikes.
Returning veterans from WWII decided to show the “big shots” by unionizing. Having lost the major reason for the plant’s existence, the zinc company began a long plant reduction and eventually sold the property to Mobil Oil Chemical Corp.
Today the extensive property is razed and locked. But a legacy of pollution and contamination remains.
To refine zinc from ore the plant brought in zinc ore and coal powder. These products were formed into briquettes and the briquettes were gas fired at high temperatures. Zinc and byproducts flowed from the ore and zinc slabs and zinc electrodes were solidified and sold.
Byproducts were the problem. Zinc ore mainly contained small amounts of lead, barium and cadmium, heavy metal contaminants. These metals were sold, but traces were dumped into Lake Depue in open ditches. The toxic contaminates built up over the years leading to the Super Fund status.
Not only does the 985 acre plant site reek with contamination, tests show the contaminants exist throughout the community.
Even as early as the 1940s, people swimming in the lake risked impetigo. Cancer clusters developed, although it took years to recognize the source.
Lacking employment, the town has experienced reduced population to its current level of 1,500 or so.
The video minces no words about EPA’s incompetence in dragging the matter out for all these years. The Sierra Club has entered the fray for what their alliance is worth.
Cleaning the lake has been a subject for going on 70 years, but the cost is monumental and bureaucratic alphabet-named agencies thrive on delay, keeping needs alive and their jobs secured.
State brochures seek industry but the Super Fund status keeps industry away.
During the twenty years I lived there, the impact of contamination was only vaguely understood. The lake and the “bottoms” embracing the lake were rich in game. Rivulets hosted muskrats and mink, which I trapped and sold. In season and out, waterfowl hunting was a local sport.
Fishing was also a popular sport and bullheads were a common staple. Some even made a living seining for carp, bullheads and catfish. Today, the public is advised to not eat fish from the lake.
Depue boasts of its quaint park, which has the lake on one side. Boat races and boating in general could be viewed from park benches and the park is crowded with viewers and vendors during boat races.
The hills surrounding Depue were rich in hardwoods, black walnut and butternut trees, elms and maple trees. The elm trees, especially dying or dead ones, for some reason, hosted the delicious morel mushrooms with a short spring season. I went there and to other local areas to harvest morels.
We had a family reunion in Henry, Illinois to celebrate and eat mushrooms dipped in egg batter rolled in cracker crumbs and sautéed.
There is nothing better!
Soon land owners recognized the value of mushroom hunts and posted their properties.
The last time I went there, my Depue friend Glen “Junie” Glover and I roamed the hillsides looking for morels. We sat on a log to rest and he said, “Do you notice the difference?”
“What difference?” I asked.
“Do you hear any birds singing like we used to?” he asked. Then, he added, “Thanks to chemical farming the bird population is way down.”
Maybe, or was it the wide spread contamination from zinc processing and 24/7 smoke belching from the tall stacks, for years and years? Or was it both?
I was lucky because I lived in the Corn Field area of the town. We rarely experienced smoke. There was an area called “Smoky Hollow,” for obvious reasons.
But the prevailing winds carried steady smoke over a bluff north of town. Plant executives lived in exclusive homes built on the bluff. Is there any wonder now why that area was razed and fenced? Why else would the owners not market these fine brick homes?
Further north, across Route 29, large fields were planted with Catalpa trees, apparently the only vegetation that could tolerate steady smoke. Later, I think it was Mobil Chemical that installed ponds in that area for residue from fertilizer processing.
Water fowl, noticing the attractive nuisance, landed there and were doomed.
Yes, contamination is wide spread and is there, ominously, with every breath. Blood tests of citizens reveal high levels of heavy metals.
Sadly, Super Fund sites have much in common. When I was with Microchip, our then parent, General Instrument, was cited as one of many who put contaminates in the Hassayampa Land Fill, even though we, and others, were directed to that site by the state.
I think $130 million was budgeted for remediation. One of our representatives told me at the time $90 million had been spent on lawyer fees. So, some people profit from disasters.
I wish Depue Mayor Donald Bosnich well in his uphill battle for remediation, but based on history and empty promises, I won’t hold my breath.