Editorial: ‘Your drinking water is contaminated,’ City Hall whispered

Not only is our groundwater contaminated, but so is the treated water coming out of our taps.  Photo by Daniel Jenkins
Not only is our groundwater contaminated, but so is the treated water coming out of our taps. Photo by Daniel Jenkins

By Stuart R. Wahlin

Staff Writer

“There’s going to be some irate citizens when they find out they’re paying for water they’re not getting.”

—Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes in Chinatown

Don’t drink the water just yet. Those of us expecting quality to be improving as the $75 million water system rehabilitation project progresses may be disappointed to learn our water supply is still not particularly safe. Although the news mostly applies only to those who depend on H2O to live, the latest reports aren’t good to the last drop.

A Nov. 19 letter signed by Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) Director Doug Scott, a former Rockford mayor, alerted city officials, “Trichloroethylene (TCE) has been detected, and confirmed, in your raw and finished water, and the TCE exceeds the nondegradation groundwater standard of 2.5 parts per billion (ppb).”

In other words, not only is our groundwater contaminated, but so is the treated water coming out of our taps, and it will take a long-term commitment to make Rockford’s water safe—if we can afford it after our commitments to other projects deemed vital.

The IEPA confirmed levels as high as 2.6 and 2.8 ppb. Drinking water is typically tested for VOCs every three years, according to the agency, which noted two of Rockford’s facilities are monitored quarterly as a result of previous detections of TCE, trichloroethane and dichloroethylene.

TCE is a volatile organic chemical (VOC) widely used not only in the dry cleaning and printing trades, but also as an industrial solvent and metal degreaser.

The source of TCE contamination in Rockford’s water supply was not specifically identified in the advisory, but an ethanol spill resulting from a train derailment during the summer was reportedly ruled out as the culprit. The environmental impacts of that spill will become apparent soon enough.

The IEPA letter to the city required that water system users be notified of the contamination—either by mail, e-mail, phone or text message—as a precautionary measure within five business days of receiving the IEPA notice.

But, according to Rockford Water Superintendent Tim Holdeman, TCE is nothing new to Rockford’s water supply.

“The 2.5 notification hit us out of the blue,” Holdeman responded. “It was a law that was passed in late August, and we’ve had no notification that it was a new law.”

Prior to the new law, Holdeman acknowledged, levels of TCE as high as 4.5 ppb were routinely sampled, but no public notification was required.

“The levels for notification are half of the safe level,” he said of the new law. “Anything less than 5 [ppb] is deemed safe, but if you get halfway there, the EPA now wants you to notify your customers. …That has caused us to revise our operational strategies to keep it below 2.5. It’s effectively changed our operation. Now, we have to respond to it.”

In an article in the National Drinking Water Clearinghouse’s trade magazine, On Tap, Technical Assistance Specialist Babu Srinivas Madabhushi explained: “One can be exposed to TCE by inhaling air contaminated with TCE vapors from water, and products made with it, such as spot removers and correction fluid. Other modes include drinking TCE-contaminated water, showering, or swimming in contaminated water. Coming into contact with soil contaminated with TCE also is a mode of exposure.

“TCE is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream following inhalation and ingestion, and it is rapidly distributed to organs, including the liver, kidneys and cardiovascular and nervous systems,” Madabhushi noted. “Also, small amounts can be absorbed through the skin.”

He added: “Drinking large quantities of water contaminated with TCE may cause nausea, convulsions, liver and kidney damage, impaired heart function, coma or even death. Though inconclusive, some studies with mice and rats suggest that exposure to high TCE levels may cause liver and lung cancer.”

The EPA concurred that those who drink water with levels in excess of 5 ppb are at higher risk to develop cancer and liver problems, but does that mean lower levels in Rockford are really safe?

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “TCE is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on limited evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in humans and sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in experimental animals.”

The agency also acknowledged, “TCE is a [central nervous system] depressant and a suspected hepatotoxin in humans.”

For now, the taxpayers will pick up the tab to filter out the contaminant—and don’t forget your water rates have already gone up a couple times to help pay for the EPA-mandated $75 million water rehab meant to improve water quality—so one would certainly hope the city’s tenacious legal department will focus some attention on reimbursement of these costs from whoever is responsible.

It seems that once points of origin are determined for the contamination, the list of suspects would be rather short. It’s not out of the question to consider that this stuff could have found its way into your child’s glass of Kool-Aid because a company decided to take some shortcuts. Answers and justice should be demanded.

Holdeman didn’t offer any names when asked from where the TCE came.

“The contamination has been there for a long time,” he said. “There’s four source areas, and it’s from mismanagement of certain chemicals, including TCE, that have [been] allowed to get into the ground.

“They’ve [U.S. EPA] gone in, and they’ve cleaned up the source area, so they removed the source of this TCE,” Holdeman added. “And now what we’re waiting for is for Mother Nature, kind of, to wash the aquifer clean, if you will. As the EPA does their quarterly samplings, they see the concentrations continuing to go down, and down and down. And so that’s good news. It is getting cleaned up through natural attenuation and through, actually, through our pumping the water.”

Regarding that Superfund site, EPA documents state, “Investigations determined that the contaminants were used by local industries and were released into the environment from storage tanks and improper disposal practices.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is the lead agency for the one source of ground water contamination, Area 9/10,” the report continues. “Most of Area 9/10 is located on the property of the Hamilton Sunstrand [sic] Plant near the corner of Eleventh Street and Harrison Avenue. Historically, Area 9/10 has been used for industrial activity since about 1926 when the Rockford Milling Machine and Rockford Tool companies merged to become the Sundstrand Machine Tool Company.”

Area 11, adjacent to Area 9/10 along 11th Street, was home to Rockford Varnish, Rockford Coatings Corporation and Rockwell International Graphics, all of which are industries known to use TCE.

In 2003, Hamilton Sundstrand agreed to design a remedy, and to reimburse the federal and state EPAs $246,403.79 in accumulated expenses, plus future oversight costs. According to the EPA, “Actual construction of the remedy will be the subject of future negotiations.”

Similarly, in the case of Rockton’s former BeloitCorp plant, despite bankruptcy, a court ordered that a $4.7 million fund be established for environmental remediation, which is ongoing. TCE is among the contaminants there, too, and has migrated into nearby private wells, as was also the case in southeast Rockford.

Because of the City of Rockford’s low-key, doe-eyed reaction to the contamination advisory, however, it’s unclear to constituents how safe it really is to make a pot of coffee, take a shower, boil pasta or brush one’s teeth.

The city hasn’t said a thing, and I’m probably not the only one wondering.

By time of publication, 11 days after the contamination advisory was issued by the IEPA, no official statement had been released by the City of Rockford to reassure its citizens, and few local media outlets bothered to report or follow up on the hazard, likely because they were never spoon-fed a press release from City Hall. The daily ran a brief article about the IEPA’s notification, but the story was buried on page 4 of a Saturday issue.

As water bottles littered the nearby desks of aldermen in council chambers, Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) told The Rock River Times: “I want to make sure I don’t overstate or understate any of those bells and whistles, the things that triggered the notification, but if there was any kind of major health risk, or any issue posed, we’d want to know about it, and we’d certainly be talking a lot more about it. But it’s my understanding that’s not the case.

“There’s no real risk that I’ve been made aware of,” Morrissey added. “There’s technical advisory requirements that the state has to make under the various state and federal laws that apply, but no real health risk that’s posed to our citizens.”

According to Holdeman, relatively few residences received notifications from the city.

“The area that we notified using the reverse 9-1-1 system was about 1,100 customers,” he said. “We notified them on Wednesday [Nov. 25] at around 6:30 p.m.

“We did some confirmatory sampling last week, and we were able to narrow the area down to an area…about a square mile in size,” Holdeman explained. “The area is around Well 35 [2944 Bildahl St.], which is down in the Southeast Rockford Groundwater Contamination Area [the EPA Superfund site].”

Meantime, he said, the well has been taken offline.

Holdeman indicated written notifications must be mailed to the same customers within 30 days.

He reported the affected area is approximately bounded by Harrison Avenue, Seventh Street, 20th Street and Route 20.

On the plus side, if there is one, an IEPA statement regarding the contamination in Rockford noted: “This level does not yet exceed the Class I groundwater quality standard for TCE of 5.0 ppb that both federal and state law allows in drinking water. However, the Right-to-Know provision of the Environmental Protection Act requires that the public be notified even before this Class I groundwater quality standard is exceeded in their drinking water.”

So, what happens if Rockford’s TCE levels should reach 5 ppb? According to the EPA: “When routine monitoring indicates that trichloroethylene levels are above the [maximum contaminant level of 5 ppb], your water supplier must take steps to reduce the amount of trichloroethylene so that it is below that level. …Additional actions, such as providing alternative drinking water supplies, may be required to prevent serious risks to public health.”

But for now, the only mandate of the precautionary letter to the city was that residents be notified of the contamination. No remediation was required, but the IEPA notice seemed to encourage it. On a positive note, aldermen may have gotten the message.

Nov. 23, in a clear, but arguably surreptitious, response to the IEPA’s letter, the Rockford City Council approved $203,689 for granular activated carbon (GAC) removal at three groundwater processing facilities. GAC, in combination with packed tower aeration, is believed by the EPA to be an effective method of removing TCE from drinking water.

According to the IEPA, Rockford has successfully used GAC for several years to remove TCE as part of a pressure filter.

Holdeman explained: “The GAC at this well on Bildahl was placed there as part of the Superfund remediation strategy, so we’re pumping water out that’s contaminated, and treating it before it goes into the distribution system.”

As for the council’s recent $203,689 investment, the city plans to replace its existing GAC system, because it has lost its effectiveness over time.

Holdeman noted: “What happened was the rehab project did not quite proceed as we had anticipated. It took a little longer with EPA funding and the economic stimulus money, and getting the low-interest loans in place. And so what we had to do was go ahead and change out the GAC.”

Until, or unless, the TCE levels reach the clearly dangerous 5 ppb threshold, however, residents only have to be advised they’re drinking contaminated water. And as long as the issue is kept as quiet as possible, people will only assume their water is potable.

It’s not that levels of 2.6 and 2.8 ppb are particularly safe, but someone—more likely wearing a banker’s suit than a lab coat—determined through cryptic models and equations that the number of people whose health will be adversely affected is an acceptable risk when compared to the cost of reducing the maximum contaminant level of TCE to the EPA’s health goal of 0 ppb. That goal, by the way, is not enforceable, but it’s warm and fuzzy.

But Holdeman said the new GAC system should be effective at removing 95 to 100 percent of the TCE from drinking water, noting the long-term goal is to abandon the contaminated well.

From the December 2-8, 2009 issue

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