State of the State: The Public's Right to Know Should Apply to Water Safety, Too

Jul 1, 2009

Bethany Jaeger
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
Tricia Krause asked Crestwood residents to tie color-coded ribbons around their trees to demonstrate the village’s “epidemiological cancer map.”

“And, therefore, it would show the significance of how many people are sick in the village — because there are so many,” she says.

Two cases include her own children. Her son was diagnosed with childhood leukemia at age 3. Her daughter developed a rare brain tumor at age 5. Her babysitter also developed a brain tumor. Now ages 19 and 15, Krause’s children technically are cancer-free, but they’ve been ill with deficient autoimmune systems their whole lives.

Krause lived in Crestwood, a Cook County village with about 11,250 people, from 1987 to 1996. In that decade, local officials allegedly routinely turned a valve to let water flow from a contaminated well into the public water supply as a way to save money, all while lying to authorities that the well was only used as an emergency backup water source.

The string of chronic illnesses kindled her suspicions. She started investigating in 1999. After 10 years of asking questions, she tipped off the Illinois attorney general’s office and the Chicago Tribune. Both reported this spring that three village officials tapped into the contaminated well for at least 22 years.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a civil lawsuit in Cook County. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a search warrant in an ongoing criminal investigation. U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush involved the federal Justice Department, while U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to look into whether drinking the water could have contributed to various illnesses. A CDC official reportedly said at a public meeting in Crestwood that there were no elevated levels of cancer but that the investigation is just in the beginning stages.

Nevertheless, the allegations raise alarming questions about whether those who lived and worked in 3,000 homes and 600 businesses that received water from Crestwood’s public supply were in danger of consuming cancer-causing agents called volatile organic compounds but didn’t know it.

Whether public officials hid that they knowingly pumped contaminated water into the public supply is scary. Whether state law fails to mandate that officials warn consumers is just as alarming.

Current law requires the Illinois EPA to notify owners of public water systems when samples reveal traces of harmful chemicals in groundwater or drinking water. Local officials are responsible for notifying their consumers.

Crestwood officials allegedly found a gap in the law.

According to the attorney general’s complaint filed last month, three officials — former Crestwood Mayor Chester Stanczek, his son and current Mayor Robert Stanczek and the former water supply operator, Frank Scaccia — lied on state forms and public reports for more than two decades. Village reports show that it purchased Lake Michigan water from neighboring Alsip and that the public water supply was 100 percent Lake Michigan water. 

The well, which was known to contain volatile organic chemicals since 1985, wasn’t used as a backup, as reported from 1985 to September 2007. The average amount of well water mixed into the Lake Michigan supply ranged from a high of 20 percent in 1991 to a low of 2 percent in 2006.

Because village officials reported that the well served only as an emergency backup, it wasn’t required to be tested. And the state relies on an honor system for such reporting.

“There was no federal requirement. They knew what they were doing,” says Rick Cobb, deputy manager of the state EPA’s Division of Public Water Supply. 

It wasn’t until 2004 that the Illinois EPA started testing backup wells on a quarterly basis as part of a larger effort to study the quality of groundwater throughout the state, according to Cobb. 

The department detected vinyl chloride in Crestwood’s well in September 2007.

Less than two months later, Crestwood maintained that it still did not draw water from the well, according to the complaint.

The story changed on August 21, 2008, when Scaccia, the former water supply operator, told officials that the village did, indeed, supplement Lake Michigan water with well water, according to the lawsuit.

Scaccia’s attorney, Bill Seith of Total Environmental Solutions in Oakbrook Terrace, says his client “is certainly very interested in making sure that everybody is properly informed.” 

The village published a statement on its Web site declaring the attorney general’s lawsuit and fines “unnecessary” because the village stopped using the well in September 2007 and abandoned it in March. The mayor also issued a statement after media stories broke and said the well water was treated with chlorine and was only tapped during times of high demand.

“There is no evidence that the drinking water that flowed from our kitchen taps contained any substances inconsistent with what the law allows. Lake Michigan water has continued to be the source for at least 90 percent of the water supply.”

In a phone interview the day the attorney general’s office filed the complaint, Madigan said, “You can add up 122 times that the village and its public officials misrepresented or withheld information from the public and IEPA that was required under the law.”

She added that the lawsuit wasn’t just to penalize the Crestwood officials — although her suit seeks up to tens of millions of dollars in fines to cover each day the violation occurred — but it also is meant to send a message to water supply operators throughout the state that they will be held accountable for following environmental and health safety laws.

“The idea that people and their children were drinking water contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals for their whole lifetimes is terrifying,” she says. “I mean, they’re drinking the water. You’re brushing your teeth in the water. You’re cooking food in the water. You’re showering, bathing in the water. It’s just terrifying.”

The U.S. EPA qualifies vinyl chloride as a carcinogen related to dry cleaning solvents. Short-term exposure can damage the central nervous system. Long-term exposure can lead to cancer and liver damage. 

Krause, the mother-turned-investigator and, now, advocate for public access to information, says she moved to nearby Orland Park, but she continues to investigate Crestwood.

“Because I shed the light on this, I feel as though I have a large responsibility to tell the truth to citizens and still investigate on a daily basis. We only have one shot to make sure that the criminal investigation uncovers any new clues or findings and consistently researches any new developments.”

She’s also seeking more answers from the Illinois EPA. 

“I’m tired of excuses. ‘Well, we didn’t have enough manpower. We didn’t have any money in our budgets.’ We’re talking about people’s health and lives and futures and children and babies. This is ridiculous that they were poisoning us and literally killing us and getting away with it.”

Illinois EPA spokeswoman Maggie Carson says she cannot say whether manpower prevented the agency from testing backup wells until 2004.

“As we learn more and our technology becomes more sophisticated, our understanding of the health effects become more apparent; we realize we need ever more information.”

She says the Illinois EPA is looking at whether the agency needs to revise various processes, but she defends its management of the Crestwood situation.

“From the Illinois EPA’s perspective, we believe we did everything right. Could we do more? We could always do more. The public notification is something that we are continuing to build upon.”

Whether more could have been done to notify the public immediately after the September 2007 test results is still up for discussion, Carson says. Technical staff believe they took the appropriate steps to confirm the information before sharing it publicly.

“And we do take a scientific approach to this. We don’t want to unduly alarm people by putting out information that may have no value or may not even be accurate.”

The agency did help draft legislation that was on the governor’s desk at press time. Approved by the General Assembly in May, House Bill 4021 would require more immediate and direct notification to the public if the EPA detected a threat of contaminated water.

For instance, if the state agency found a concentration of chemicals that exceeded groundwater standards, it would have to post all information online. 
Local officials would have to issue the same information and describe the potential health effects within two days, as opposed to the current 60 days allowed after a violation or a seal order is issued. They could distribute the information through phone calls, post cards, text messages or e-mails. And they would have to follow up with a written notice in customers’ bills.

Officials who knowingly lied to the state or federal EPA would be charged with a felony, in the hope that a more significant punishment would deter future crimes, Cobb says.

“We didn’t anticipate that all of the safety factors that we have in place for community supplies wouldn’t catch something like Crestwood. But obviously there was a gap. So this is intended to fill that gap.”

Krause says community members still need to be their own watchdogs. “And don’t give up. Because I didn’t, and we have answers, unfortunately.” 

But it shouldn’t require a mother to conduct a 10-year investigation to get those answers.

 

Whether public officials hid that they knowingly pumped contaminated water into the public supply is scary. Whether state law fails to mandate that officials warn consumers is just as alarming.

Bethany Jaeger can be reached at capitolbureau@aol.com.

Illinois Issues, July/August 2009