Residents are upset there's no timeline for reopening Taylorville's Kroger supermarket almost six weeks after state officials discovered customers and employees may have been put at risk of inhaling asbestos and closed the store.
"To me, it is a big black eye on state government," said Gwen Podeschi, 64, a longtime and loyal Kroger shopper. "What good does it do to close it and let it sit there? This is a model commercial property. It shouldn't be left to ruin. I want the situation resolved."
Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Director John Kim issued a seal order July 29 for the store at 201 E. Bidwell St. in the Christian County seat, and all occupants were removed from the building.
The EPA cited both Kroger, a publicly traded company based in Cincinnati and the nation's largest grocery chain, and a licensed asbestos contractor, Indianapolis-based SSI Services LLC, for violating the IEPA Act and Illinois Pollution Control Board regulations.
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul also filed a civil lawsuit against both companies that remains pending in Christian County Circuit Court. The suit seeks to require both companies to work with the state on a remediation plan and pay civil penalties of up to $50,000 apiece.
Kroger's closure was prompted by an IEPA inspection of the building July 29 while the store was open to the public and no renovation work was going on at the time, according to the lawsuit.
SSI was conducting a renovation project designed to remove 39,500 square feet of floor tile and mastic, an adhesive. All of it was classified as "non-friable asbestos-containing material."
SSI was improperly removing, handling and disposing of the material, the suit said. The company failed to take precautions such as making sure the material was sealed off or wet when it became "friable" – or pulverized and capable of releasing microscopic asbestos fibers into the air, the suit alleged.
Once released, asbestos fibers can remain suspended for several hours or days before settling, and there is no safe level of asbestos exposure, the suit said.
Asbestos, once widely used in the construction industry, can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis when inhaled. Federal lawmakers and agencies have worked, with mixed success, to ban the use of most types of asbestos, and mining of asbestos in the United States ended in 2002.
The removal of asbestos was to have taken place between July 18 and Sept. 2. SSI was supposed to set up containment measures for asbestos-containing materials every night while renovations were performed and removed it during the day when the store was open to the public, state officials said.
EPA officials found containment efforts inadequate, with pieces of floor tile and other asbestos-containing materials "that had been ground, cut or abraded, outside of containment, outside of leak-tight wrapping, and within areas of the facility accessible to the public and outside of the facility in (a) Dumpster that was not completely closed," according to the lawsuit.
Jamey Dunn-Thomason, spokeswoman for Raoul, said: "We are in close contact with the Illinois EPA and Kroger regarding remediation and what needs to be done to allow the store to safely reopen. The Illinois EPA is currently waiting for Kroger to submit an acceptable remediation plan detailing cleanup of the building. While we understand residents' frustration, our priority is the health and safety of shoppers and Kroger employees."
Kroger spokesman Eric Halvorson said in an email that the company intends to reopen the store "and will do so when the state rescinds its order, so we are working diligently with expert remediation partners to make that possible."
He wouldn't comment when asked when the store might reopen.
"We apologize to our loyal customers because we know the order complicates their lives," Halvorson said. "We are eager to return and, once again, provide the friendly Kroger service and value Taylorville appreciates."
As for the store's approximately 90 employees, he wouldn't say whether any have lost their jobs amid the service disruption.
"Some have chosen to work at Kroger stores in Decatur," he said. "Others have chosen to take leave or vacation time. We appreciate their dedication and regret the inconvenience this situation places on them."
SSI officials didn't respond to requests for comment.
The store's workers are unionized and represented by Local 881 of the United Food and Commercial Workers. Union officials haven't responded to phone calls and emails from Illinois Times.
Christian County property records indicate the building has operated as a Kroger at least 20 years and before that was a County Market supermarket. In the 1970s, the building operated as a Pamida department store.
Taylorville Mayor Bruce Barry said the city of 10,500 people has a lot of Kroger fans. There are three other grocery stores in town – Aldi, the Walmart Supercenter and a smaller grocery store, Taylorville Food Market.
Barry said residents "really miss Kroger. For a lot of people, that was the only store they went to. It's been a big change."
No one went inside the store – which was filled with produce and refrigerated meats – for weeks after it was sealed, and he said he didn't know whether any spoiled food has been removed.
Barry said he doesn't know who is to blame for the asbestos problem.
"Kroger has assured me they didn't do much wrong. ... I want to see some type of solution or conclusion to this," he said. "Sitting there isn't the answer."
Taylorville resident Joyce Barlow, 64, who formerly worked in the office at the Kroger, organized a rally outside the building in August that attracted more than 100 people wanting to see progress toward a reopening.
"It's just been closed for so long and nobody's doing anything," she said.
Podeschi, a retired reference librarian for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield and a former Christian County Board member, said she probably spent $800 to $900 per month at the Kroger.
She particularly enjoyed the quality, selection and prices for produce, ice cream and dairy products at the store, which also housed Taylorville's only Starbucks.
She said she appreciated the convenience of being able to order a birthday cake in the morning and pick it up that evening. And Podeschi, who was represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees when she worked for the state, said she liked to show support for unionized grocery workers.
"This is really a superior American grocery store," she said. "It has what you want. I know that the products are good in it. ... It's not just a convenience, it's a necessity to have a store like this."
Podeschi said she is frustrated no air-quality test results have been released, and few other details surrounding the investigation have been made public.
She said she has no problem with the IEPA protecting the public, but she worries that slow action by the state will prompt Kroger to leave the community.
"If you're going to close a business down like this, where's the step-by-step process to take care of the situation?" she asked.