By Richard S. Gubbe
In the days following the town hall meeting to discuss options for residents who may have tainted wells containing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) on Rockford’s west side, the Winnebago County Health Department (WCHD) has acquired one sample from a private well and plans to meet this week to discuss further testing for VOCs.
Residents in and around the affected area west of Central Avenue and north of Auburn Street, where volatile organic compounds have been found in well water, came to the meeting last Aug. 23 at Northwest Community Center in search of answers as to what to do about their homes and their health.
Sue Fuller, public information officer for the WCHD, said she could not release details of the private well that was tested last week.
“That’s confidential information,” she said, adding the officials will meet to “map out” plans this week for further testing of VOCs.
The public informational gathering held by city, county and state officials provided details of the results of water samples taken at 20 homes in early August after two homes in July were found to contain excessively high levels of components that make up gasoline.
After Todd Marshall of the WCHD described how the samples were taken and the timeline surrounding the testing, residents were allowed to ask questions about what the future holds for them as homeowners and renters.
Marshall said the most recent test results have shown a decrease of 70 percent in the number of parts per billion of VOCs found in the well water at the first two homes analyzed at state-approved labs of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. This area includes homes north of Auburn that include the streets of Alliance, Soper and Johnston avenues and end at Parkside to the north.
That news wasn’t comforting to most of the 25 in attendance, who came to relay both their health concerns, health issues and financial dilemmas they face.
While county officials are focused on the current testing, many residents say they have experienced problems for the past two and three years.
While the cause, or causes, of the tainted water were bandied about, residents also were told of the solutions — filtering their well water or connecting to the city’s water supply and closing off their wells permanently.
Emmit Capes of 1214 Soper connected to city water after his water tested with high amount of nitrites in January 2010. He said the WCHD tested his water two years ago and found no VOCs.
“My two granddaughters had sores on their arms,” Capes said of why he connected to the City of Rockford water system. “Putting chlorine in the well didn’t solve the problem.”
The nitrites, officials say, stem from fertilizer runoff. The cost to connect to city water and to seal off his well came to more than $2,600, but he added pressure of city water, he said, caused damage to his home.
“The pressure from city water ruined my pipes,” Capes said.
Marshall said none of the most recent 20 homes surveyed from samples taken by the Illinois Department of Health showed any VOCs in the area west of Johnston Avenue. Marshall said 22 total samples were tested and VOCs were found in four of them, but only two were found to be over the accepted limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He said the re-testing of wells occurred Aug. 4.
The WCHD issued a statement that read, “The home with the highest level of VOCs was resampled and the concentration found was 70 percent lower, indicating a possible decline in the VOCs in the area groundwater.”
Marshall said all tests were conducted at one EPA-certified lab.
“We took two samples (from the same well) two weeks apart,” Marshall said. HIPPA laws prohibit revealing which addresses were tested.
Marshall said the two solutions involved city water connection or the installation of a carbon filter in the home.
Because the area is outside city limits, citizens in that area who hook up to city water will pay double for their water.
No determination has been made about where the substances common in gasoline — benzene, toluene and xylene — came from.
“We don’t know the source,” Marshall said.
Illinois Department of Public Health official Mike Bacon said of the early findings: “We think it’s flowing north to northwest. We hope we can pin it down, but we don’t know for sure.”
Roger Hare, at 1316 N. Johnston, said he has been suffering from the effects of his well water for years.
“All you people here are going to be sick,” Hare warned the crowd.
Bacon said, “The illnesses may or may not be related to environmental pollution.” Bacon encouraged residents to get “age-appropriate screenings.” He added that “eating well and proper exercise will have more to do with better health than anything we’ve said here.”
Another resident noted during the question-and-answer period that “my water has been doing this for nine years and chlorine doesn’t work.” She said she lived on Parkside and added “my clothes smell” after doing her laundry.
County Board Member Angie Goral encouraged residents, particularly households with pregnant women, to get their water tested by bringing samples to the county twice a year for $29 each. She admitted after the formal presentation that those tests don’t include screenings for VOCs, only nitrite levels from fertilizer and pesticide levels, along with bacteria levels. VOC screening panels cost upward of $300 and don’t include all toxic substances that can be found in well water, such as lead.
From the Aug. 31-Sept. 6, 2011, issue