Water expert warns of impending toxic problems
• IEPA assigns investigator to possible Superfund site
Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a three-part series detailing toxic waste dumping in the area west of Central Avenue and north of Auburn Street in Rockford. Click here to read part one of this series.
By Richard S. Gubbe
Just how much toxicity lies in the wells in the neighborhood north of Auburn Street has forced county and state health officials to test, retest and analyze data as to where the most lethal wells lie.
Complaints by citizens in the area have led The Rock River Times (TRRT) to investigate how Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs) got there. But what other chemicals or heavy metals are floating in the wells on Alliance and Soper avenues, as well as nearby wells on Johnston, Greenview, Parkside, Day and Liberty? Are public officials providing a true sampling of what lies below the surface, 25 to 50 feet, even 100 feet below?
TRRT interviewed two groundwater experts to give answers to some residents who voiced dissatisfaction after two town meetings were held. Neither expert painted a rosy picture about what could be a bigger problem than the Winnebago County Health Department and the Illinois Department of Public Health painted for nearby residents.
When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set guidelines for acceptable limits of chemicals in private wells and city water supplies, the agency put forth a list of chemicals and “MCL” guidelines for the “maximum contaminant level.”
As one local expert related, “If you go into a bar and have a shot a whiskey, that’s one thing, but when you go in and have a shot of everything, it’s going to hurt you.”
The problem with EPA guidelines, both experts said, is they don’t include chemical compounds that have been introduced on the planet since the early 1990s that are used in farming, manufacturing and pharmaceuticals. That number can range upward from 80,000 new compounds, depending on whom you ask.
“At least 80,000 is a pretty standard number,” said Chris Nidel, who has a master’s degree in chemical engineering from MIT and who is also one of the country’s leading environmental lawyers from Washington, D.C. “If no one is looking for them (a new compound), they’re not going to find them.”
Nidel quit his job as an engineer in the pharmaceutical industry when he became disgusted with how the industry was poisoning people and the planet they live on.
Nidel files lawsuits on behalf of plaintiffs who have suffered from toxic dumping, such as those related to the famous Love Canal case. In the mid-1970s, Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y., gained international attention after it was revealed in the press that the site had formerly been used to bury 21,000 tons of toxic waste by Hooker Chemical (now Occidental Petroleum Corporation). Hooker Chemical had sold the site to the Niagara Falls School Board in 1953 for $1, with a deed explicitly detailing the presence of the waste, and including a liability limitation clause about the contamination. Hooker Chemical was found to be negligent in their disposal of waste, though not reckless in the sale of the land, in what became a test case for liability and causation.
Last week, TRRT revealed allegations by residents in the area around the Northwest Community Center that Amerock Corp. was involved in dumping toxic waste into Kent Creek and the surrounding area directly from the plant and in 55-gallon drums buried nearby.
“There’s no question that the chemicals used in metal working and degreasing and metal plating from taking raw steel, polishing and reforming it, are linked to cancer and childhood leukemia, without a doubt,” Nidel said in an exclusive TRRT interview. “Chlorinated solvents such as TCE and PCE and heavy metals such as arsenic, nickel, zinc and chromium — some are more toxic than others.”
Maggie Carson, spokesman for the Illinois Environment Protection Agency (IEPA) in Springfield, Ill., told TRRT Sept. 9 that an IEPA investigator and team of IEPA researchers have been assigned to look into pollution in the area in and around Soper and Alliance avenues. Carson said information “has been provided to members of the staff involved in this issue, and they do plan to follow up. An individual has been assigned to do archival research.” She added with as much information that has come forward, the investigation will not be quick.
She said an agent was in Rockford Sept. 7.
“With this many properties, this takes time,” Carson said. “We will put something out when we have something to report.”
Carson said difficulty arises because tracking businesses involved is not often easy.
“If they are old, there is a bit of a problem,” she said. “Addresses change, or there’s more than one address.”
Nidel, who called the EPA “a necessary step” to help clean up the situation, said for the area to be classified as a Superfund site, such as the one designated on the southeast side of Rockford in the 1980s, two factors are involved: degree of toxicity and threat to the environment and/or the public. But there is also the question of budget and economics. He said the EPA will likely “take a score sheet” and rate toxicity of the chemicals as well as the threat posed to the public.
“That number helps determine whether a site is added to the Superfund list, but it’s also relative to the budget,” Nidel asserted.
Carson was adamant that the agency will conduct a full and thorough investigation.
“Our goal at this agency is to find a viable party that could be accountable for this,” Carson said.
County officials have stated the well water tested in the area has shown the existence of benzene, toluene and xylene, all found in gasoline. By testing wells at different levels and at different times, they hope to find the source by plotting the “plume” of toxic chemicals derived.
Nidel said if you dump VOCs into the ground from a gasoline storage tank, some toxins go into the groundwater, some into the soil.
“If you have enough of it,” he said, “it forms a second layer on the groundwater.”
If you put enough of these in the ground, and they don’t dissolve in the water, they sit on top of the water like oil and vinegar. He said these chemicals are referred to as NAPLs (nonaqueous phase liquids) and can be either “light” or “dense.”
A Light Non-Aqueous Phase Liquid (LNAPL) is a groundwater contaminant that is not soluble and has a lower density than water, which is the opposite of “dense,” NAPLE or DNAPL. Once LNAPL infiltrates through the soil, it will rest at the height of the water table, since LNAPL is less dense than water, but will continue to contaminate the aquifer. Gasoline is an example of an LNAPL.
“If they find LNAPL, they’ve got a big problem,” Nidel said. He said taking samples at different levels can give different results. “It’s not rocket science, but it can be complex, and proper characterization can require a number of samples at a number of different depths.”
Nidel said water samples taken from shallow wells could show two phases — pure chemical and saturated water, where samples taken in deeper wells do not, thereby masking the true extent of the problem.
“I do know that if there’s a nonaqueous phase, but if there is, it’s going to take a whole lot longer than a handful of years to go away,” Nidel said. “Gas station plumes can extend a mile or more.”
While benzene, toluene and xylene are found in gasoline, they are also used as a degreaser in the plating industry.
The EPA began monitoring gasoline storage tanks in 1989, according to Carson. The program is titled Registered Underground Storage Tanks. Those that are found to have leaked are classified as LUST sites, for leaking underground storage tanks. She said “the database from the state fire marshal registered underground tanks historically back to 1974.”
There are 169 storage tank sites in the 61103 ZIP code alone on the EPA site and more than 15 in the immediate area around Auburn and Central.
TRRT has learned three more gasoline storage tanks could exist in the area that are not on the EPA list. Unless they were emptied and sealed, like the one at the former site of Kegel Motorcycle Co. at 3833 Auburn St., removed in the 1980s, there’s no way of knowing what is leaking into the soil and groundwater. TRRT found and reported to the IEPA three possible unregistered storage tanks on Auburn Street, Day Avenue and Greenview Avenue.
Carson said the extent of the contamination “would depend on the geology of the area, the type of contaminant, and the volume of the product spilled.”
The problem could be compounded if an additive, MTBE, was used in the gasoline, Nidel said.
Methyl tert-butyl ether, MTBE, is an organic compound that is a volatile, flammable and colorless liquid that is immiscible (or does not mix) with water. MTBE was used to raise the octane level in gasoline, and its use has been controversial in the U.S. because of its occurrence in groundwater.
MTBE gives water an unpleasant taste at very low concentrations, and thus can render large quantities of groundwater non-potable. MTBE is often introduced into water-supply aquifers by LUST. The chemical and physical properties of MTBE, as well as its resistance to natural degradation, cause it to travel faster and farther than many other components of gasoline when released into an aquifer.
“MTBE can migrate very far, and is typically found at the leading edge of the plume emanating from the leaking tank,” Nidel said.
Nidel said a complete VOC scan is needed at different levels of wells in the area at numerous locations to see “how far the plume has migrated. What the contaminants of concern are is really critical to identify early to ensure that you are testing for all possible contaminants.”
“This could potentially go a mile or more,” Nidel said. “Many of these contaminants can go through your foundation, a phenomenon known as ‘vapor intrusion.’ The fact you’re not drinking the water doesn’t mean you’re definitely safe. Take a bath in the stuff, and you may just be pickling yourself. There’s often more exposure to toxic chemicals through bathing and showering rather than drinking. They (contaminants) want to come out of the water, and they may either be inhaled or absorbed through the skin.”
Nidel warned of other contaminants, sinkers such as PCEs (perchloroethylene), another industrial solvent — also used in dry-cleaning — that can penetrate downward as much as 100 feet or more.
“You can have worse contamination deeper down,” he said. “Chemicals shoot through the cracks into deeper water that you otherwise thought was clean. There’s a risk of that, for sure, depending on the local hydrogeology.”
“Until we complete the research, we really can’t be definite about it,” Carson said.
When asked is LUST exposure a threat to the city water supply, Carson said: “Typically not, since these public water supply wells are usually deep. Also, public water supply water is extensively monitored, tested and treated before it is distributed.”
Nidel is worried that childhood leukemia can develop from exposure in homes in this area. He said the effects of VOCs and heavy metals in groundwater can be devastating to the health of a child.
“If you give a shot of whiskey to a 2-year-old, the effect will be different than to an adult,” he said. The same is certainly true for exposure to toxic chemicals.
“When you took a shower and you didn’t feel like you took a shower,” Russell said of her home on North Johnston. “We took our water down and checked it, and they said it was OK in the 1960s. I should have checked it more, but they told us nothing in there would hurt us. The water never smelled good. It had a rotten egg smell. If I would have known what was in it, I wouldn’t have lived there for 20 years. If they would have told us, we would have moved out, you know.”
Winnebago County Health Department officials and Illinois Department of Public Health officials have conducted tests over the past two months and have determined VOCs run in the well water that lies beneath properties on Johnston and Soper avenues. Neighbors on other blocks and those from tested houses have voiced their displeasure and concern at town meetings at the Northwest Community Center conducted by city, county and state officials who say hooking up the city water will eliminate their problems. Officials hope that by testing wells, they will show the source of the pollution.
Roger Hare, who grew up in the neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s, said he and friends used to see the owner of a nearby appliance store on Auburn Street between Soper and Alliance dump coolant and Freon in the ground in the back of Ray Robel’s refrigerator and air conditioner repair shop.
“We would be out back of there where kids would hide behind there and smoke cigarettes,” Hare said. “Ray would come out and say ‘get away from there, that stuff is flammable and poison.’ We watched him dump all those buckets that came out of air conditioners and deep freezers into the ground.”
The possibility of other dumping by the residents and nearby businesses could also have contributed to the tainted groundwater, and the evidence of a high incidence of deaths from cancer and other diseases is plentiful.
Geraldine Russell, 73, who lived at 1316 N. Johnston and who worked at Amerock, has lived through a quadruple bypass and suffers from leg problems. Her husband, John Charles Russell, has survived a triple bypass and suffers from incontinence. Two of her three children have died, and all of her friends have died, she said.
“My husband had prostate cancer, a triple bypass, and there’s something wrong with his kidneys,” Russell said.
Although many neighborhood residents like Russell worked in factories, they all drank from the groundwater under their homes, whether rented or owned.
All of the people interviewed for this story reported illness to themselves, their friends and their pets. Russell, for example, lost four dogs to premature deaths.
Hare and friend LaVern Benjamin said most of their friends are dead, and the rest suffer from severe health problems. They said doctors have told them they may have less than two years to live. Benjamin grew up near Hare and can barely walk, has memory problems and needs a new liver. Hare has offered his health records as proof.
TRRT staff members went into homes on Johnston and Soper and found a distinct odor of gasoline emanating from kitchen faucets.
Hare, who has lived in the same house the past two years that Geraldine Russell lived for 20 years, said: “I’m worried about the kids down here now. They’re drinking this water. This water has always been a little smelly and rusty.” He said he also has suffered from kidney stones and joint problems.
“My sister has had the same joint problems,” Hare said. “Now, their kids are starting to have symptoms. My girlfriend was healthy until she moved in here.”
Hare and Benjamin exhibited sores on their legs, which were swollen. Both had difficulty walking the bike path that now runs along Kent Creek. Benjamin needs a transplant, he said.
“I’m so sick, but my doctors don’t know why up in Madison,” he said of the VA physicians in Wisconsin. “They gave me two years (to live). Being a veteran, I’m quite confident I’ll get one (a liver transplant), but there’s always that chance I won’t.”
Paul Kegel owns property at 1304 N. Johnston after growing up seven blocks south on the same street. He’s been a longtime friend of Hare’s. He was part-owner of Kegel Motorcycle Co. until the mid-1980s. His father started the company on Auburn Street. His brother, Marc Kegel, said the underground tank at Kegel’s was removed in the mid-1980s.
“I would not put my hands in Roger’s water,” Paul Kegel said.
Kegel, whose property is hooked up to city water, went to the first and second town hall meetings and thinks residents aren’t being told everything they should know.
“The city and county guys were rather smug about what was going on there,” he said. “They were showing that when we attended that meeting. They’re not there to help the people. They are there to cover it up. I’m encouraging people to stand up for their rights.”
Three basic types of tests can be done on well water: first, for Coliform and nitrites; second, for VOCs; and third, for heavy metals.
The easiest, and most simple, is a test for Coliform and nitrites. Nitrites come from agricultural runoff and include herbicides and pesticides. Coliform is more commonly know as E-coli.
The Illinois Department of Public Health advises that, “Bacteria and parasites that cause illness can enter a well in many ways. Whether the contamination comes from the materials and tools used in the well’s construction, from septic failures near the well or from feedlot runoff, the bacteria and parasites must be destroyed to ensure safe water.”
State and county officials urged well owners to pour chlorine in their wells to rectify or prevent problems. Other health advisers say chlorine only adds to the prospects of health problems.
Tests for VOCs, which cost more but show the presence of such toxic substances as benzene, toluene and xylene, were found in the sampling of wells taken by the Winnebago County Health Department (WCHD) and Illinois Department of Public Health. As noted, those three compounds are found in gasoline, but benzene also is used as a solvent to clean tools.
WCHD official Todd Marshall said VOC levels decreased from the first sample taken, and the second sample taken decreased as much as 70 percent.
“But they did the test right after it rained,” Kegel said, which may have had an impact on the levels detected by the sampling.
“You’re not going to see this type of reduction if it’s from long-term contamination,” Nidel said. “A 70 percent reduction is not something you’d see from degradation alone.”
The third type of test is far more expensive and shows the presence of heavy metals such as chromium, arsenic, barium, selenium and cyanide that can cause catastrophic illnesses. These chemicals are found in the plating process used at Amerock.
Sue Fuller, spokesman for the WCHD, said “additional tests will be conducted mid-month.” She said the WCHD “sent a letter to get a sampling from other homes.” She said the WCHD wants residents who have not contacted the county for tests as yet to come forward to get their water tested “to get a complete look at Soper and Alliance.”
But, she added, “We’re not doing heavy metals, only VOCs.”
Any further action must come from the Illinois EPA, she said.
Whether the pollution comes from underground storage tanks, abuses by businesses in the area over the last 60 years, or from private dumping by citizens in that area over the last 60 years, more and more residents have come forward to identify a problem with their wells.
A true representation of everything that lies in the wells will take more tests and at different depths, Nidel said.
Of the 200 or so homes in the immediate area, only about 30 rely on city water. For each home to hook up to city water will cost $2,000 to $3,000. Because these residents in the area are not City of Rockford residents, they will have to pay double for their water, as compared to those residents south of Auburn Street. The increased water pressure of city water has been known to cause problems with the plumbing in homes with well water.
For Russell, knowing her water was tainted provides a little comfort, but the attention has come far too late.
“It won’t bring my son and daughter back to us,” she said.
Postscript: Part three of this series will focus on Amerock and its employees. Anyone who would like to contribute as a former Amerock employee is invited to e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling our office at (815) 964-9767.
From the Sept. 14-20, 2011, issue