The Tale of the Mahomet River

A true story.

Once upon a time, 250,000 years ago to be specific, at the dawn of the Pleistocene Epoch, there was a great river running through our fair Village. This river, originating off to the east in the area that was to become West Virginia, flowed westward through our area and on down from here to the Gulf of Mexico.

This river was named for the Champaign County Village that stands above the river’s deepest section: the Mahomet River. And at the dawn of the Pleistocene, the Mississippi was a mere tributary to the Mahomet River. Take THAT, Mississippi.

Fast forward 250,000 years. Chris Coulter at Area Disposal Service in Clinton thinks it would be a peachy idea to go into the Polychorinated Biphenyls (PCB) disposal business at a landfill they own near Clinton in DeWitt County. PCBs, which have been banned by the EPA since 1979, “have been demonstrated to cause cancer, and a variety of other adverse health effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, and endocrine system.”

So they apply for a permit to dispose of PCB’s at the Clinton Landfill.

In the meantime 250,000 years ago, huge advancing glaciers from Canada were bearing down on the Mahomet River in what came to be known as the “Illinoisan Glaciation”. As they advanced, they pushed great quantities of ‘glacial till’ including rocks and gravel along with them. Eventually, the Illinoisan glaciers receded back to Canada, and in the process, completely buried the ill-fated Mahomet River. Thus began what is known among geologists as the “Sangamonian Interglacial Period”.  This was followed by still more advancing glaciers during the “Wisconsonian Glaciation” approximately 125,000 years ago that further buried the Mahomet River.

Fast forward 125,000 years. The Clinton Chemical Waste Landfill grows increasingly unpopular. A majority of the people of Clinton vote to oppose the landfill, but the DeWitt County board signed a binding ‘resolution of neutrality’ with the owners of the landfill and therefore take no position. It should be noted that DeWitt County receives $908,845 in fees from the landfill and if the landfill starts accepting PCB’s it would receive another $50,000 more.

Meanwhile, 17,000 years ago, the last of the Wisconsonian Glaciers, while on its way back home, paused in our area and deposited large amounts of glacial till along its south edge to create the Champaign Moraine. And as pooled water broke through the moraine and flowed southward, it created a new, more modest river right on top of the Mahomet River like a baby resting on its mother’s lap. Thus was born the Sangamon River, dooming the ill-fated Mahomet River to ancient underground history, never to be seen or heard from again.


Fast forward 17,000 years when 850,000 people moved into the area and drilled wells down through the glacial till to tap into some of the freshest, cleanest drinking water around from what they came to refer to as the “Mahomet Aquifer”.

And the site of the Clinton PCB landfill just happens to be right on top of our Mahomet River (aka, Mahomet Aquifer) and has the potential to permanently poison this entire Aquifer, which sat untouched for the last 17,000 years.

Area Disposal claims that PCBs even if leaked, would be “highly unlikely” to penetrate the aquifer. Of course we presume these aren’t the same people that said a certain famous ocean liner was “unsinkable” (which we will all be able to watch sink, yet again, in dizzying 3-D in theaters soon).

To allay our fears and protect our aquifer, the owners report that the landfill liner is “quite strong”, reportedly the thickness of three entire garbage bags! Probably Hefty “Steel Sacks” even!  On a recent visit, Champaign County Board member Al Kurtz tried to pick up the liner and tear it with his hands, but that liner held firm. So that’s one tough liner that will be protecting our water supply from permanent PCB poisoning!

Meanwhile, here in Mahomet this past October, Trustees unanimously passed a resolution defending its namesake River/Aquifer stating, among other things: “Whereas the Mahomet Aquifer is the source of water for most Champaign County residents and businesses, and any contamination of the Mahomet Aquifer by PCBs from the proposed Chemical Waste Landfill can be expected to have deleterious effects on the quantity of water available from the Mahomet Aquifer, the Board of Trustees of the Village of Mahomet opposes the permitting by the  USEPA of the proposed Chemical Waste Landfill.”

A special thanks to Trustee Bruce Colravy for bringing this issue to the attention of the Village, to Village staff for their excellent research into the issue, and to all of the Trustees for voting unanimously to protect the long-lost Mahomet River.

From the column “Notes from the River”, Mahomet Citizen, December 29, 2011 by Scott Hays

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