SAUK VILLAGE | On July 24, based on a directive from Gov. Pat Quinn, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency took over the installation of portable air strippers on contaminated wells in Sauk Village.
The move was the culmination of eight days of grappling with the news that both wells supplying the village with drinking water registered vinyl chloride readings of 1.68 parts per billion on July 16. The U.S. EPA maximum contaminant level is 2.0 ppb, while any sampling more than 1.0 ppb in Illinois triggers a chain of activity.
Frustrated with the lack of movement by the village between July 16 and Tuesday, the state initiated the installation in order to provide safe drinking water to residents.
What has been overlooked is the fact that the problem with well water in Sauk Village came to light over three years ago. What has been done about it, and in some cases not done about it, has become a commentary on local politics, gridlock and the innocent people caught between.
In May 2009, Village Engineer Jim Czarnik reported to the village president and the Village Board that cancer-causing volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, were detected in Sauk Village Well No. 3, which is on the north end of town. Those tests showed the level of vinyl chloride at 3.49 ppb, much higher than the 2.0 ppb allowed by law.
The village administration instructed the well be taken off line. The Public Works Department shut down the well, which left only two wells to supply the village of 11,000 residents with water. The village also supplies water to two nearby mobile home parks, Candlelight Village and Weatherstone Lakes.
Wells No. 1 and No. 2 also had vinyl chloride findings in their tests, but at a much lower level. Still, it was obvious the well water in the village was an issue.
While there were many debates during the next year, little was accomplished.
On April 30, 2010, the Illinois EPA filed suit against Sauk Village over a series of violations of environmental law, including unacceptable levels of carcinogens in the village's water supply.
In May, residents packed the Sauk Village Municipal Center for a special meeting, during which K+ Environmental Engineering assured them the water was safe to use.
Residents expressed concerns over health issues and the state lawsuit. Some called for the village to discontinue its well water system and obtain water from Lake Michigan.
Village President Lewis Towers told residents they would have to take the initiative if they don't like the type of water they receive.
"If you want Lake Michigan water, then you have to come up with a committee to get a referendum on the ballot," Towers told the audience.
A public referendum proved easier said than done.
Bernice Houston has lived in the village for more than 15 years. Tired of the yellowish color coming from her kitchen sink, she worked on a petition to add the water question to a public referendum during the municipal elections.
She collected more than 800 signatures and presented them to the Village Board. She thought they would move to put the petition on the ballot.
But another village resident, Angela Cox, objected to the petitions. According to Cox, the petitions did not mention the cost associated with the switch.
Because Cox formally filed an objection in court, the Village Electoral Board had to review the petitions.
After several meetings, the Electoral Board, which consisted of Towers, Village Clerk Debbie Williams and senior Trustee David Hanks, found four of the seven objections had merit and declined to recognize the petitions.
Houston appealed the decision in Cook County Circuit Court, but the courts sided with the board.
Hanks was in favor of letting the residents decide on the water issue, but said the board was bound by state law.
"This didn't have anything to do with whether or not board members wanted Lake Michigan water," Hanks said. "We were charged with deciding if the objections had merit, and they did."
Houston was upset when her appeal was denied.
"We want cleaner water for our families," Houston said. "That's not hard to understand."
There were many who felt that the due process was being held up by political in-fighting among Village Board members and Towers.
The Village Board as a whole stated repeatedly the decision regarding Lake Michigan water should rest with the residents. Even though they all agreed on that point, it took two years to get a resolution adopted.
On March 20, almost three full years after Well No. 3 was shut down, the village residents finally got to vote on the matter in a public referendum.
The village approved the referendum to hook the village up to Lake Michigan water. The vote was 736 votes (57.53 percent) in favor of and 665 (47.47 percent) against.
“We feel very good about the victory,” Towers said in an interview that day. “Since day one of my campaign and my election, I promised to bring healthy, clean water to the residents of Sauk Village. This is the platform I ran on.”
But planning to bring in clean water and actually delivering on that plan are two different things.
Towers has said Sauk Village cannot afford the cost of putting the contaminated well back in service. However, disconnecting the well would put the village in violation of the law for not having a backup well.
In November 2010, Robinson Engineering recommended Sauk Village pursue Lake Michigan water. Village Engineer Czarnik examined all options, including treatment of the three existing wells before making his recommendation.
The estimated cost of hooking up to Lake Michigan was listed at $19.7 million. The treatment of the wells with a process called air stripping, which uses aeration to significantly reduce the vinyl chloride by as much as 95 percent, was estimated at $4.6 million.
Towers, along with Trustee Enoch Benson, supported the move to Lake Michigan water as soon as possible.
Hanks, and Trustees Rosie Williams, Derrick Burgess and Ed Myers, supported a phased approach. They were in favor of implementing the air stripping and then a move to Lake Michigan water over a longer period of time.
“No one is against Lake Michigan water,” Hanks said at the time. “But it will take four to five years to complete the hookup. The air stripping will buy us time to be able to come up with the money to finance the larger hookup.”
“The idea of spending so much money on 50-year-old wells is a bad idea,” Towers said. “That money should be put towards the Lake Michigan proposal.”
This past May, the IEPA denied a $10 million loan to the village for Lake Michigan water, stating in its letter it was concerned the village could not afford the cost. Village residents would have to pay almost 3 percent of their median income for water, higher than the 2 percent maximum the state supports.
The IEPA suggested the village look at the air stripping option.
The Village Board then adopted a plan to almost triple the water rates for residents, from $3.90 per 1,000 gallons to $10.37 per 1,000 gallons. The increase was for 90 days, to gauge if the residents were able and willing to pay what would be needed for Lake Michigan water.
On July 16, the IEPA notified the village recent test results from Wells No. 1 and No. 2 showed vinyl chloride readings of 1.68 parts per billion. Though still below the maximum contaminant level of 2.0 ppb, the number initiated an alert to residents that village well water had problems.
"The federal maximum contaminant level for drinking water is 2 parts per billion," Czarnik said. "But when drinking water exceeds half of that in Illinois, notification steps have to be taken."
One of those steps is for the IEPA to make a public announcement, which it did with a news release July 16. Then the IEPA put the village government on notice to inform its residents. The village notified all residents about the contamination levels within the allotted five days.
"The village also has to have a plan to deal with the contaminants," Czarnik said. "We do. We have a plan to hook up to the city of Chicago Heights and purchase emergency drinking water from them."
The Illinois attorney general’s office went to court July 20 and filed a motion to ensure the village provide bottled water to residents as long as needed.
On July 19, the Village Board adopted a resolution to enter into an agreement with Baxter & Woodman Consulting Engineers to install temporary air stripping on the two functioning wells at a cost of $515,000 with an installation time frame of four to six weeks.
At that point, the state stepped in and began installing portable air strippers, which should be up and running by Wednesday.
Rose Langston has been a resident of Sauk Village for 52 years. She shook her head at the news while getting bottled water from the village.
“What a political sham,” Langston said. “For a half million dollars, and a four-to-six-week time frame, we could have avoided so much of this. How long ago should this have been completed? We've had a problem since 2009.”
The IEPA has said they will continue to monitor the test results, before and after the installation of the temporary air stripping. The Emergency Services Department of Homeland Security now is involved in monitoring water distribution and well testing.
What the future holds
Robinson Engineering submitted a 61-page water improvement plan to the board in October 2011. But given the circumstances, new plans quickly have been developed to deal with the high vinyl chloride readings.
A village emergency plan needed to be in the hands of the IEPA and the attorney general by July 19, said Scott Mulford, deputy press secretary in the attorney general's office. If not, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan would seek a preliminary injunction to ensure the village follows the law.
The injunction went into effect July 20, as did the IEPA work on installing the portable air strippers.
At a public meeting Wednesday at Bloom Trail High School, IEPA Director John Kim told the residents the village had to install a permanent treatment process for the wells.
A plan is also in place to provide a temporary hookup to Lake Michigan water from Chicago Heights. That hookup can be completed by mid-2013. But Czarnik stressed that this is an emergency hookup only and should not be confused with the larger Lake Michigan connection.
“In order for the IEPA to approve our permanent hookup, we need to resolve several issues with watermains and infrastructure,” Czarnik said. “The cost of that work is estimated at $9 million.”
The $9 million is part of the overall $19.7 million estimate, Czarnik said.
The IEPA portable air strippers will provide relief until the village air strippers are in place. Then a permanent treatment process will be installed at the site.
No one is certain if financing for the major Lake Michigan connection can be secured.
Langston just continues to shake her head at what she calls “the shenanigans” that have gone on.
“Now that it is out of the hands of our village government, maybe something will get done to permanently resolve this,” she said.