Peru, state EPA disagree over what caused sewer break near La Salle-Peru High School last year

IEPA and Peru differ on whether concrete dumping caused sewer damage, city pays for repair

The ravine south of Howard Fellows Stadium was a dumping site for Mertel Cement on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022 in Peru.

State and city of Peru officials are at odds over what caused a sewer break last year that cost $282,000 in damages and polluted a ravine south of La Salle-Peru High School, making the water turn black and the air filled with a raw sewage odor, records show.

The city of Peru has pegged the damage on a company dumping concrete and other debris into the ravine. The state EPA, however, says the sewer break was because of a blockage unrelated to the company’s dumping in the area, records show.

“The dumping of concrete made it difficult to access the area to clear the blockage, but did not cause the sewer to collapse,” said Illinois EPA Public Information Officer Kim Briggs.

On Sept. 14, 2021, the city of Peru was notified of a sewer overflow at the ravine. Multiple eyewitnesses said they saw a company’s concrete trucks washing out their concrete mixing tanks in the ravine on multiple occasions, according to a Peru police report.

Photos were taken of visible concrete debris, and La Salle-Peru High School provided the city with video surveillance of trucks dumping materials.

A photo of illegally dumped concrete debris at the ravine near La Salle-Peru High School in Sept. 2021

The city initiated its sewer collapse protocols and notified the IEPA within 24 hours, according to correspondence between the city and state agency obtained in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The IEPA inspected the area two days later and found “offensive conditions ... in the East Ravine as the water was dark black in color and had a raw sewage odor,” according to an agency report. The IEPA sent Peru Mayor Ken Kolowski an official violation notice for the sewer collapse on Dec. 16, 2021.

In email correspondence, city officials have attributed the sewer break to the concrete dumping, records show.

In a Sept. 14, 2021 email, Scott Schweickert, the city of Peru’s corporate counsel, referred to the incident as “dumping ... that damaged the City’s sewer trunk line” to La Salle-Peru High School’s Superintendent Steven Wrobleski. A police report from the incident cites “there were issues with the sewer due to the dumping of copious amounts of cement down the hillside.”

Nevertheless, no charges or citations have been leveled against the company, and the matter has been referred to Peru’s engineering department, Peru Police Chief Bob Pyszka said.

The company did not respond to numerous NewsTribune requests for comment. The NewsTribune is withholding the company’s name, at this time, because it hadn’t been cited and the IEPA found its alleged dumping did not contribute to the sewer break.

Through its inspection, the IEPA determined the cause of the sewer collapse to be a blockage. Briggs, the IEPA spokeswoman, said Peru City Engineer Eric Carls confirmed the IEPA’s finding, identifying the cause of the sewer break as a blockage, discovering “multiple sandbags, a piece of broken pipe, and a large chunk of asphalt pavement, that were creating a blockage for the downstream invert.”

Schweickert said the city has been investigating illegal dumping contributing to the sewer break for some time.

“It’s a contested dispute and we’re trying to solve it,” Schweickert said, adding the company has been cooperative and the parties are close to a resolution.

Schweickert didn’t say whether the company will be held accountable for allegedly contributing to the sewer break, citing pending litigation.

A photo of concrete debris in the ravine near La Salle Peru High School in September 2021

Knowingly dumping trash, construction debris or other materials in unapproved locations can be considered a criminal offense, ranging from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class 4 felony, depending on the amount dumped. Illegal dumping also is an IEPA violation, and the IEPA requires local government officials and law enforcement officers to investigate, and file charges when necessary.

On July 5, the Peru City Council approved and paid for the repair of the sewer to be completed by construction company J.W Ossola for $282,771. At the July 5 council meeting, Carls said the fix would involve rerouting the sewer because of the “compromised hillside on the ravine due to dumping activity.”

Alderman Jim Lukosus asked at the meeting whether the company would help with the fix, and Schweickert said the topic would be discussed in a closed session.

“It concerns some ordinance violations and we’re working … towards a resolution, and they’ve been very cooperative,” Schweickert said. “It hasn’t been resolved yet, but when it is, it’ll come before the council for approval.”

Kolowski and Carls declined to answer questions about the sewer break and instead deferred to Schweickert.

The Illinois EPA granted Peru until Aug. 31, 2022, to complete the sewer re-route fix. After receiving the EPA violation notice in December 2021, Peru sent a permit application to the Illinois EPA on Jan. 12, 2022, for approval to fix the sewer. Peru also requested to enter a Compliance Commitment Agreement with the Illinois EPA to resolve the violation, and Kolowski signed the agreement on March 29.

The permit was approved by the Illinois EPA on April 1.

Carls said it was difficult to find a contractor to agree to the job at the July 5 Council meeting, but did not indicate why, with four out of six contractors rejecting the project proposal. On July 5, the council approved the bid from J.W Ossola to complete the sewer re-route, and Kolowski signed the compliance statement on Aug. 18, signifying the project had been completed, meeting the Aug. 31 deadline.

Restoration work still is in progress at the site, according to a statement Carls made Sept. 26 at the city’s public services committee meeting.