Editors’ note: Our hometown of Rockford, Illinois, is celebrated by pollsters as one of the most demographically average cities in the United States. Not surprisingly, then, our political, economic, and cultural trials reflect those of the country at large. In “Letter From Rockford,” a recurring column, Rockford writers will examine local issues that have national significance.

Rockford has a rich industrial heritage of furniture makers, tool and die manufacturers, defense contractors, and metal fastener producers. Along with this heritage comes the gift that keeps on giving—pollution. After making their rounds at local factories, waste haulers used to dump a variety of solvents, oils, and paint wastes on the sandy soil of former farms (where they had a clear path down to the city’s aquifers), or bury barrels of waste in city dumps or on their own properties. The old petroleum and chemical holding tanks of these industries still exist, of course, as do the underground tanks of former gas stations. At the time (the 1940’s, 50’s, and early 60’s), the dumping of industrial wastes and the burying of barrels were legal.

Many of the polluting industries were located in southeast Rockford. In the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s, the rates of cancer and other illnesses began to rise in southeast Rockford, where homes were not connected to city water but relied on wells. This rise prompted a seven-year, $9.2 million study by the Environmental Protection Agency, which also connected many southeast-side homes to city water. Now they want their (our?) money back. In addition, the EPA estimates that it will cost another $5.5 million to clean up Ekberg Park, a former farm—now owned by the Rockford Park District—which was the site of much of the dumping. The total; about $15 million.

Who should pay the $15 million? For that matter, who should pay the bill for any area designated a Superfund cleanup site by the EPA? Historically, the polluters have paid. But since dumping was legal prior to 1964, and the community benefits from jobs generated by polluting companies, some have argued that local taxpayers should pay.

That was the conclusion of the Rockford Chamber of Commerce and Rockford Mayor Charles Box. Taking advantage of a little-known Illinois statute that allows the creation of special taxing districts for things like mosquito abatement, they proposed a special property tax district in southeast Rockford. Industrial property owners in the district would pay an additional $1.18 in taxes per $100 of assessed value for the next 20 years, to fund $6 million in bonds. Another $3.5 million in water bonds would be issued, and paid for by a city-wide surcharge on industrial/commercial water usage. Of the $15 million, only $5.5 million would be paid by the businesses that the EPA had designated as “Potentially Responsible Parties” (PRPs) —in other words, the businesses that had actually polluted. And that $5.5 million would come from voluntary contributions. Meanwhile, the total bill to the taxpayers of Rockford, over the 20-year life of the bonds, would be in the range of $20 million.

To an outsider, this plan must sound crazy. Why would the city of Rockford take this liability upon itself, or rather, upon its taxpayers? Why not make the PRPs shoulder the entire bill? The official answer was presented by Ryan Petty and Joe Reagan of the Rockford Chamber of Commerce. Spouting fire and brimstone, they painted a picture of endless litigation which would destroy Rockford’s economy, as the PRPs attempted to reduce their liability by forcing other companies—companies which the EPA had not targeted—to pay some of the costs. From their pulpit. Petty and Reagan thundered that paying the tax would be cheaper than paying legal fees. They cited chapter and verse from other Superfund sites, where litigation had been intense.

The threat of litigation was a powerful incentive, and the almost religious fervor of Petty and Reagan was so convincing that most of the opinion leaders in Rockford—including those who normally oppose the Box machine—were initially in favor of the proposed solution. Rockfordians have had their fill of litigation, and they have seen its destructive effects. Our school district is under federal court control, the result of a desegregation lawsuit which has cost Rockford taxpayers $150 million over the past few years. Compared to that, the proposed Superfund solution looked like pocket change.

The battle to defeat the Superfund settlement had several “defining moments,” but the first came when Luther Landon, a local environmental consultant, organized a conference, open to all concerned, to examine the plan. Landon, who had formerly worked for the Illinois EPA, presented the facts—as far as they are known—regarding the sources and implications of Rockford’s groundwater contamination. Environmental attorneys Michael Maher and Elizabeth Harvey discussed the associated liability issues, and James Hess, an attorney who specializes in municipal law, described the legal problems of the proposed tax district. Presented for the first time with a credible discussion of the issue, many of the business owners in southeast Rockford began to view the “solution” as an attempt by Rockford’s power structure to protect its own interests. As in many industrial towns, those who head up the largest industries also exert great control over Rockford’s politics. To cite just one example: Ray Wood, the president of Rockford Products (one of the PRPs), was the finance chairman for the reelection committees of both Democratic Mayor Charles Box and Republican State Senator Dave Syverson. Given the dynamics of Rockford politics, the Superfund “solution” proposed by the Mayor and the Chamber of Commerce looked more like a welfare program for politically influential businesses.

After Landon’s conference, the grassroots struggle began in earnest. Those opposed to the Superfund taxing district were helped by the arrogance of those who supported it. At a city council hearing, Ray Wood, presumably trying to stifle the burgeoning opposition in its cradle, thundered, “I guarantee you, unequivocally, we will sue. No matter who you are or where you are.” Meanwhile, behind the scenes, some of the PRPs which did business with smaller companies in the proposed taxing district informed them that opposition to the proposed solution would hurt their bottom line.

This was no idle threat. Under the Illinois mosquito abatement statute, the special taxing district would automatically be created unless 51 percent of the affected property owners signed a petition opposing the district. In other words, there was no “Australian ballot.” A business’s stand on the taxing district would be public knowledge, and the PRPs could use that knowledge any way they wished.

Despite these threats—or perhaps, because of them—the small business community in southeast Rockford stood up to the powers-that-be. Mal Anderburg, the owner of Dial Machine, and others spent over $50,000 and thousands of hours fighting the taxing district through their group, Concerned Property Owners (CPO). Most of the members of CPO were apolitical; some had never even voted. But they went door-to-door in southeast Rockford, gathering the necessary signatures. Glen Ekberg, who had donated the Ekberg Park land to the Rockford Park District, was the only individual named by the EPA as a PRP; yet he put principle ahead of financial considerations, and signed the petition. He did not believe that placing a tax burden for the Superfund cleanup on innocent small businesses was right.

From the beginning, it was clear that, if those opposed to the taxing district did not succeed in their petition drive, the Rockford City Council would have to vote on the plan. The city council normally acts as a rubber stamp for the wishes of Mayor Box. The Winnebago County Board, however, is a different matter. When it was revealed that a portion of the proposed taxing district was in the county, and that the district could not be created without the board’s consent, several county board members—notably Republicans Mary Ann Aiello and Tom Seymour—stood up for the small businesses in the taxing district. Their tireless efforts would ultimately turn the tide.

For months, Mayor Box and the Chamber of Commerce portrayed the EPA as the heavy. They argued that they were simply trying to protect the citizens of Rockford from further federal intervention, a la the school situation. But the facts did not add up. For one thing. the proposed Superfund taxing district had boundaries that were different from those used in the EPA’s Superfund study. Some members of the opposition noticed that certain politically influential businesses had been excluded from the taxing district. City Attorney Ron Schultz was forced to admit that the city, not the EPA, had set the boundaries for the taxing district, and that, under the mosquito-abatement statute, the size of the district could be increased by five percent every year.

When Mary Ann Aiello decided to approach the EPA on her own, hoping to get some answers, she received a shock. The EPA had not proposed the Superfund “solution”; the proposal had originated in Rockford! So, who was the real enemy of the local taxpayer: the EPA, or local government acting in collusion with local big business?

The truth began to emerge at a forum, organized by Aiello and held at Rockford College. Hoping to clear up some misconceptions —and perhaps some outright lies—Aiello invited Andrew Warren, the EPA’s attorney in Chicago, to address the property owners in the proposed taxing district. A few days before the forum, Warren told Aiello that he had received a call from the U.S. Department of Justice, and that he might not be able to attend after all. I called Warren to find out why. He said that DOJ had concerns that his visit might affect the outcome of the Superfund petition drive. I asked him about rumors that were spreading through Rockford: Was there pressure from the White House? Had Janet Reno intervened because of Mayor Box’s position with the U.S. Council of Mayors, or because of his other contacts with the White House? He recommended that I contact DOJ directly. An underling there noted my concerns that Warren’s failure to speak at the forum would give the appearance of a coverup. Warren came to the forum, as did an attorney from the Department of Justice, two attorneys from the U.S. EPA, and 2 representatives of the Illinois EPA.

The powers-that-be made a desperate attempt to regain control of the situation. State Senator Dave Syverson (the Republican who shares a finance committee chairman with Democratic Mayor Box) attempted to take over the forum. But there was little he could do. When he mentioned the Chamber of Commerce, laughter filled the room. Seeing his best-laid plans going astray. Mayor Box quietly slipped out of the room after a mere ten minutes. It was not the finest hour for the powers-that-be.

But even though those opposed to the “solution” had gained the upper hand, the city and the Chamber of Commerce remained arrogant. City Attorney Ron Schultz refused to release the Consent Decree (the document detailing the full terms of the city’s proposed settlement with the EPA), until the Department of Justice made a call to Schultz at the request of Mary Ann Aiello and Tom Ping, an auto mechanic whose shop was in the proposed taxing district.

As Jim Hess, an attorney for Concerned Property Owners, commented, “Sometimes you have to look at the forest, not the trees, Ron Schultz wants you to look at the trees. It all has to be extended. It’s not a question of whether [the Consent Decree] would be revealed; it’s a matter of when. They’ve treated us like mushrooms. You know what mushrooms are—you keep them in the dark and cover them with horse manure.”

What was the forest that the city was trying to conceal? The Consent Decree revealed that the city of Rockford —in other words, the taxpayers—and not the PRPs would be responsible for paving the entire $15,761,900 bill (plus interest!) to the EPA by the end of the year. A section entitled “Effect of Settlement; Contribution Protection” revealed the extent to which the city wished to protect the PRPs. Any business which signed on to the agreement could not be sued; any business which refused to sign, however, could be sued by the PRPs.

The release of the Consent Decree virtually assured the death of the taxing district. But the Chamber of Commerce had one final trick up its sleeve. The Chamber sent a videotape of the Rockford College forum to all businesses in the proposed taxing district. The videotape (quite accidentally, of course) had a Watergate-style gap. The missing seconds just happened to encompass an EPA lawyer’s statement that the EPA would not sue a business if the only evidence of contamination on that business’s property came from a contaminated aquifer running underneath it. Tom Ping, the auto mechanic, discovered the gap, and Chris Bowman, a local radio talk show host who had devoted hundreds of hours of his show to the opponents of the tax district, played the tape on the air, over and over.

The little guys and gals had had enough. Three hundred and forty-seven property owners signed the petition—a full 63 percent; the statute required only 51 percent. Still, Mayor Box would not concede. The city, which had declared the number of properties in the taxing district to be 550, hired a local title company (paradoxically named Chicago Title) to research the owners-of-record. Concerned Property Owners, suspecting that the city was attempting to invalidate the petition by increasing the number of signatures needed, filed an intent to sue the city.

Finally, on September 15, 45 days after the petition was submitted, Mayor Box announced that Chicago Title had found 655 properties in the proposed district. After disallowing 13 alleged duplicate signatures, the city claimed that the petition organizers had garnered only 50.992 percent, “ever so slightly short” (in Ron Schultz’s words) of the 51 percent needed. Nonetheless, Mayor Box announced, he would not submit the taxing district to the county board for approval. How magnanimous.

The little guys had won. The taxing district proposal was dead. And in their last, desperate attempt to save face. Mayor Box and City Attorney Schultz had ended up with egg on theirs.

But broader questions still remain. Was the proposed Superfund tax district simply business as usual, in which the average man has to pay for the transgressions of the powerful? Was this “solution” a model for resolving Superfund sites in the rest of Illinois, or even across the country? Watch Rockford; as we go, so goes the nation.

As Robert Frost wrote: “My object in living is to unite / my avocation and my vocation / as my two eyes make one in sight.” We here in Rockford work hard at our vocations every day. Our avocation—the avocation of everyone in America—will have to be the resolution to resist, to fight those battles in which the mighty seem destined to win. The mighty did win here in Rockford: not Mayor Box, City Attorney Schultz, the Chamber of Commerce, and the PRPs; but Mal Anderburg, Glen Ekberg, Mary Ann Aiello, Chris Bowman, Luther Landon, Jim Hess, Tom Ping, Belle Zyla, and many others I haven’t mentioned. They sacrificed, they fought, and they won. You can do the same in your town.