Kennedy's Law Firm Asked to Represent Champaign Residents

By Mike Monson

CHAMPAIGN – Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s, law firm is looking into representing residents who live near a contaminated former manufactured coal-gas plant site in north Champaign.

Kennedy's law partner, Kevin Madonna, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that his firm has been asked by a coalition of local groups to represent the neighborhood and is investigating whether to do so. Kennedy & Madonna, with offices in White Plains, N.Y., and Hurley, N.Y., is a nationally known firm in the field of environmental law.

Robert Kennedy Jr. is the son of late U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1968 while running for president.

Kennedy & Madonna is currently representing about 20 property owners in the Oakwood area who live near a fly-ash landfill. 

Madonna said he had been speaking with Claudia Lennhoff, executive director of Champaign County Health Care Consumers. Lennhoff is active in the Fifth and Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign that has formed to represent residents who live near the former coal-gas site near Fifth and Hill streets.

"We've been speaking with Claudia and looking over documents the past few weeks to see if there's anything we can do to assist the community," he said. "I will be in town April 10."

It's too early to say what type of legal challenge the firm might make if it does become involved, he said.

He said there are thousands of former coal-gas manufacturing sites across the country that are in need of environmental cleanup.

"The potential for off-site contamination is a definite possibility and is something the residents should be concerned about," Madonna said. "The question is how far off site it's gone and to what extent are residents are being exposed and have been exposed to contaminants."

The 3.5-acre site – between Fifth and Sixth streets and Washington and Church streets – is owned by AmerenIP. The utility is expected this week to begin extensive testing, including soil borings and drilling monitoring wells, of the neighborhood surrounding the site to determine how far off site contamination has traveled.

AmerenIP officials have said they hope to begin a multimillion dollar cleanup of the site by next year.

The site formerly housed a manufactured coal-gas plant that produced a byproduct, coal tar, that was stored on site in tar wells for decades, before the wells were cleaned a decade ago. Coal tar contains volatile compounds referred to as BTEX – benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene – found in petroleum products. Previous testing has shown that benzene and other compounds have contaminated soil and shallow groundwater in the area.

Lennhoff said the neighborhood rights campaign has surveyed residents who live near the site and found a number of women with reproductive health problems, as well as a few cases of multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer.

"I think it's highly encouraging that a renowned, highly respected law firm that has a successful track record for representing people victimized by environmental toxins is interested in our case," said Lennhoff.

AmerenIP spokesman Leigh Morris said Tuesday he had no comment on Kennedy & Madonna's possible involvement.