Residents want answers after contaminated water discovered

1225 Soper (left) and 1223 Soper, in the area of Rockford being tested for contaminated water. (Photo by Richard S. Gubbe)

• Winnebago County: Testing for contaminated water being treated like criminal investigation

By Richard S. Gubbe
Contributing Writer

Winnebago County officials and anxious residents are awaiting results taken from well water in an area surrounding the 1200 block of Soper Avenue in Rockford. Officials are hoping the 21 additional samples taken recently will help them determine the depth and origin of the groundwater pollution that was discovered at the end of July.

Residents in and around the affected area cling to the hope that they are not living above a toxic dump site.

This is horrible,” said Manuel Lopez, 38, who owns the home at 1223 Soper Ave. A distinct odor of gasoline emanated from the kitchen sink Monday morning. Lopez said his wife drank tap water months ago, and got sick and was taken to the hospital for tests after experiencing vomiting and nausea, he said.

We cannot use it anymore,” he said, adding that his family with three children must go out of the house to bathe and must drink bottled water inside.

Across the street at 1214 Soper, homeowner Sharon Rush said she switched to city water years ago after seeing orange-colored water coming out of her tap.

Before we got city water, it smelled,” she said. Rush, who said she paid $4,800 to connect to city lines, said she plans legal action.

According to Winnebago County Health Department officials, between 180 and 200 homes are in the testing area for well contamination. Another 30 homes in that area are connected to city water lines and are not in play in their investigation, officials said. After two samples taken from wells in July came up positive for contamination, an additional 21 wells were tested, and three samples from each well were surveyed.

The goal of taking 21 additional samples is to identify how large an area is affected, by how many pollutants and by what strength. Gasoline, benzene and other cancer-causing chemicals were discovered from original testing done at two locations.

Larry Swacina, director of Environmental Health Services for the Winnebago County Health Department, said it is hoped the sampling from 21 additional wells will determine “the depth of wells and the groundwater flow to determine the size and source of the contamination.”

Swacina said direction of the flow will be key in determining the source. Gas stations have been located nearby, and the Amerock plant was operated only a few hundred yards away. The Mobil station formerly on the corner of Johnston Avenue and Auburn Street has been cited in the past for environmental abuse.

That Mobil has a past record of leakage of 600 gallons of product,” Swacina said.

Because it is a known carcinogen, the use of benzene as a gasoline additive is limited, but it is an important industrial solvent and precursor to basic industrial chemicals including drugs, plastics, synthetic rubber and dyes.

Swacina said his department is treating the testing “like a criminal investigation. The profile is consistent with gasoline, but we won’t know until we get the results back,” Swacina added. “We notified a large area to be on the safe side.”

Testing was being handled through the Rockford Regional Office of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. The Rockford office services nine northwest counties. Clayton Simonson, environmental health supervisor for the Rockford office, said results could be back soon. “Could be today,” he said Monday, when asked about the 21 samples.

The Winnebago County Health Department circulated informational fliers after the original two samples came back from the neighborhood bounded by Cottonwood Airport to the west, Alliance Avenue to the east, Auburn Street to the south, and to the end of the roads between Alliance Avenue and the Cottonwood Airport. Then, they held an informational meeting for residents the first week of August at Northwest Community Center.

Renter Nicole Clark, who lives next door to Lopez at 1225 Soper, was one of the homes in the latest set of samples. She said she signed a waiver to have samples taken. She also said she was told at the town meeting that her house was uninhabitable and that she should leave.

We haven’t told anyone to relocate,” Swacina said.

Simonson added, “I don’t believe anyone has been told that.”

Because the county health department has limited funds, testing can’t be done at every home, Swacina said. He said the 21 samples were strategically spaced in the area to get a clear picture of the size and source.

Up a slight hill from 1223 and 1225 is homeowner Joyce Larkins at 1207 Soper, who said her water doesn’t smell, but the threat of contamination is still a concern. She said her water was tested two years ago when she moved in, and it passed. On the other side of Clark and Lopez to the north lies the home of Herbert Hyatte at 1233, who said his wife has smelled odors at times from the faucets. “But I’ve owned this house for 30 years, so I don’t worry about it,” he said.

For those residents who want their own results, independent testing can be done. American Pure Water on Forest Hills Road is one such business that sends its water testing samples to National Testing Laboratories. A complete panel runs around $300. Federal standards for water are provided by the federal Environmental Protection Agency office and are posted online.

The regional office will report the results to local residents at another meeting, Simonson said. Any action taken against the alleged perpetrator would be handled at the state level, he added.

We are here to protect the health and safety of the people,” Simonson said.

Finding the source may provide only consolation to nearby residents.

Nicole Clark said her husband started smelling gasoline from the faucet a week before the county came to test her water. She said her family, which includes four children ages 20 months to 17 years old, have been drinking bottled water since June.

But we were still bathing in it,” she said. “It smells horrible.”

Clark has since left her home. She said her health started to deteriorate in the past year.

I have been in and out of the hospital, and I’m a young, fit person and try to take care of myself,” Clark said. She said she has been having headaches and vomiting. Clark said she took her youngest to have blood tests, and those were negative. She plans to have tests by a medical specialist in Chicago who tests for long-term exposure to benzene. The acceptable limit by federal standards is 5 parts per billion for benzene.

We tested 900 parts per billion,” Clark said of the original two samples taken in the neighborhood. Simonson said because of HIPAA privacy statutes, he can’t release results from individual homes.

The future for residents could involve being hooked up to city water lines.

We would hope to get the source responsible to pay for the houses to be hooked up to city water,” Swacina said.

Clark said her Arlington Heights property owner and landlord won’t return her calls. She’s trying to retrieve her security deposit and August rent so she can use it to find another place to live.

Right now, we’re just trying to keep our heads above water,” she said.

From the Aug. 17-23, 2011, issue

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