Apr 21, 2009

Chicago Suburb Used Contaminated Well for Two Decades

Investigation found the village of Crestwood, Ill., kept using the well but told residents they were drinking only lake water

A Chicago Tribune investigation has uncovered that the south Chicago suburb of Crestwood, Ill., was secretly drawing water from a contaminated well, even though state environmental officials alerted them to the presence of contaminants at least 22 years ago.

Officials kept using the well in an apparent attempt to save money, according to the Tribune.

Even after telling state regulators in 1986 that they would get their tap water from Lake Michigan and only rely on the well in an emergency, records show the village used the well routinely, some months relying on it for up to 20% of the village water supply.

The well water is polluted with two chemicals related to perchloroethylene (PCE), a dry-cleaning solvent associated with cancer, liver damage and neurological problems. The most likely source of the contamination is a dry cleaner less than 300 ft from Crestwood's well.

The well was shut off in December 2007, when the EPA tested the water for the first time in more than two decades and found that the well still was contaminated and that the village had been piping the untreated water to residents, the Tribune reported.

Despite a 2005 right-to-know law requiring the EPA or the Illinois Department of Public Health to alert citizens who may be exposed to soil or groundwater pollution, state officials did not inform residents about the contamination.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has directed his staff to conduct a review of the state EPA’s actions in Crestwood.

State environmental regulators are required to notify municipal officials, not residents, when public water supplies are affected, according to the Tribune.

"The governor is a longtime proponent in notification and continues to believe very strongly in that law," Quinn spokesman Bob Reed told the Tribune. "We are keeping an open mind about changing any rules or closing any loopholes in the law."

EPA officials first said the well was contaminated too long ago to trigger the law's notification requirements, the Tribune reported, adding that later that they said it was because contaminants in Crestwood's water didn't violate the legal limits.

The EPA and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office are investigating, and the U.S. EPA said it would conduct its own inquiry.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who represents Crestwood, sent a letter demanding a federal investigation to U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. "This was a deceitful act and someone must be held accountable," Rush said in a statement.

The report in the Tribune is available