By Richard S. Gubbe
Gasoline pollution has been found in five wells in what may be an isolated problem in well water along Soper Avenue north of Auburn Street, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH).
Test results from 22 samples taken from 21 wells by the IDPH and the Winnebago County Health Department (WCHD) in the beginning of August around the area bordered by the Cottonwood Airport, Auburn Street and Alliance Avenue have found pollutants consistent with gasoline. Two tests were positive for the same substance found in late July.
The vast majority of homes in the small subdivision rely on well water rather than city water.
“We found that five of the 21 wells had high levels of benzene and toluene,” said Melaney Arnold, spokesman for the IDPH.
She said both are components of gasoline, and the high levels were found in a cluster of homes around where the original testing was done at 1225 Soper Ave. The other wells tested “did not have any levels of gasoline,” she said.
“We will continue to do monitoring and follow-up testing,” Arnold said. “If people come forward, we can do testing then. It doesn’t appear that it’s going outside this small area, and is pretty much included in one area. Further out, we did not have that detection.”
The state Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is working on finding which business that used benzene and toluene is responsible for the leaking of gasoline into the well water supply. The source, or perhaps even sources, of the gasoline have yet to be determined, and there are a number of culprits still in play.
“There are a number of underground storage tanks in that area,” Maggie Carson, of the the Illinois EPA, said. “We will take a look at each of these sites and the groundwater flow information. Some are close to the surface, and some are deeper” gas storage sites.
There has been speculation that the nearby Amerock plant was responsible. Carson said: “We haven’t ruled anyone out. Back then, gasoline was used as a solvent.”
The testing may not be over for residents around the area because five of the 22 tests came back positive. How far the area reaches “would depend on what we find,” Carson said. “We have to look at the plume of contamination. If they find it’s gone that far, then they have to go farther.”
Going farther includes the geographical scope. Going farther may involve legal action, which Carson called “taking it to the next level.”
The ability to do so rests with scientific research to identify what kind of gasoline it is and where it originated.
“Speaking in hypotheticals, one option is to find the facility,” Carson said. “Then, if we can identify the responsible party, the state attorney general would get involved and take legal action on our behalf. Part of our job is to see if this is possible.”
If more tainted wells are found, the depth of the investigation would expand. But Carson doubts the scope will turn into another EPA Superfund site for Rockford because “Superfund sites tend to be the largest, most complex and heavily contaminated sites.”
The two agencies will work together to determine the scope and the party or parties responsible. Carson said tests showing the specific chemical makeup of the pollution can help in determining the source.
The EPA began a program to monitor underground storage tanks in 1989 called LUST (Leaking Underground Storage Tanks). The state database from registered underground tanks dates back to 1974. Unfortunately for the residents, there are storage tanks below ground that still contain gasoline and it’s possible a spill happened from a tank never registered.
“There were gas stations around there in the ’30s,” Carson said, “but most of their storage tanks were emptied and filled with gravel.”
A nearby Mobil station, now closed, had been cited in the past for leakage of 600 gallons of product in the 1980s.
“Until we complete the research, we really can’t be definite about it,” Carson said.
The decision to declare a house uninhabitable would come from health department officials, not the state EPA, Carson said.
For now, the wait continues.
“Some of the things we’ve done to our environment decades ago, we’re now paying the price,” Carson said.
From the Aug. 24-30, 2011, issue