By Richard S. Gubbe
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) has agreed to hook up at least 16 residences in the neighborhood north of Auburn Street and west of the former Amerock plant to the city water supply in the wake of finding contaminated wells in the area.
Although the source of the benzene contamination being investigated by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) has not been determined, the USEPA has decided residents located on Alliance and Soper avenues as well as homes located on Auburn and Parkside that are not connected to city water will be offered to be connected at no charge.
“Any home in that area on a private well was offered connection by the USEPA. We’re going to hook up 16 homes to city water without charge,” said Bradley Benning of the USEPA Region 5 office in Chicago. “Those are the remaining homes in the area of concern that are still on private wells. Everyone else in the area is on city water.”
Many of the homes in that area tested for more than the allowable EPA limits for benzene, a component of gasoline.
“The homes showed detection in that area, and the potential is there that even the homes that show non-detect are likely down the road going to show some contamination,” Benning told The Rock River Times (TRRT) in an exclusive interview. “The decision was made to hook everybody up in that area regardless.”
The USEPA offered each resident not already hooked up to city water the chance to do so at an invitation-only meeting at the Winnebago County Health Department Dec. 7. Although the media were not invited to attend, TRRT learned of the offer through Benning, and it was confirmed by residents who attended.
“Bids went out to contractors the other day and are due back on the 19th,” he said. “Work will probably begin by the first of the year.”
Assistance was requested by the IEPA to the USEPA Oct. 13 for the residents on Soper and Alliance avenues and included the offer of bottled water in 5-gallon containers. TRRT learned by door-to-door survey that only two residents established contact. Since then, other residents have received bottled water in the area of the 1200 block of Soper and Alliance avenues.
“Bottled water was just a temporary solution to get them water right away,” Benning said. “The solution was either a full-house filtration system or connection to city water. Since the mains were already in place, it was likely cheaper to hook them up rather than the filtration option. We decided to go with the connection option. There is no maintenance on that (city water). Residents would have to replace the filter media (in filtration).”
The connection to city water will include sealing off old wells, Benning said. He added water bill rates will be double those of city residents, unless the neighborhood is annexed, which may be forthcoming, he added.
Benning said the request for help came Oct. 13 from Bureau of Land official Bruce Everett of the Illinois EPA in Springfield.
“They requested assistance from us for assessment and possible funding under the Superfund Program,” Benning said. “It’s mostly an issue with funding. Local, state, there’s no funding mechanism for them to do this.”
Benning said the area qualifies under the USEPA Superfund Program “based on groundwater contamination in this small area because the contaminated plume basically is underneath this neighborhood. The homes qualify, the area I guess you can say qualifies. The action taken strictly is to provide safe drinking water to the homes.”
As for who or which business is found responsible for the benzene contamination, Benning said, remains with the IEPA.
“There won’t be any action by us to do any remediation,” Benning said. “The state may continue to investigate a responsible party. If one is found, there may be corrective action or remediation that would be required of someone to stop the plume from continuing.”
Benning said all homes in the square area will be offered hookups, with as many as 16 identified to this point. No houses on Johnston Avenue have been added to the list, although more tests have been conducted by the IEPA recently in the 1200 block, Benning said. If those houses show a presence of benzene, they will be added, he said. One home in the 1200 block has not been added because it is boarded up, he said.
“I’m assuming everyone will probably want it,” Benning said of the hookups. “But there is nothing on Johnston right now. Results are still coming in to the state. If it’s showing benzene, we would consider adding it. We haven’t received the final results yet.”
The state IEPA declined to comment about the matter when contacted by TRRT. The IEPA has offered little information about their investigation about well water contamination, citing privacy issues.
Although the source of the plume has yet to be confirmed, TRRT has confirmed the IEPA has contacted the Mobil gas station on Auburn Street between Johnston and Day about the matter. Three black state trucks were reportedly seen at the station the week before Thanksgiving at the same time another IEPA truck was gathering samples from the ground in the area. The IEPA confirmed it had been testing the soil.
Lead investigator Mark Wagner of the IEPA confirmed the white truck belonged to the IEPA and confirmed the visit to the Mobil station but did not name them as the source.
Wagner confirmed the white truck seen during Thanksgiving week “has a hydraulic press that comes out of the back and was taking samples.” He added the IEPA “met with the Mobil station on the 21st.”
Maggie Carson, spokesman for the IEPA in Springfield, said the IEPA did collect another series of water samples in the area recently. She added they were at the IEPA lab and that Wagner’s team was awaiting results.
“We are in the process of evaluating it with groundwater flow and direction,” Carson said.
Carson added that more specific information was “private and confidential.”
Benning of the USEPA said the plume of the contamination “is heading due east.”
Carson declined to elaborate on the Dec. 7 meeting that included residents in the area as well as city, county and state officials.
“They were private meetings,” she said.
Sue Fuller, spokesman for the Winnebago County Health Department, also declined to disclose any details of the meeting, saying, “It was between the home owners and the Illinois EPA and the USEPA.” She added the WCHD was only the host of the Dec. 7 meeting.
Benning, who attended the meeting, said, “We had a meeting to ask the homeowners and offered them connection” at the Winnebago County Health Department Dec. 7. Benning said officials from the City of Rockford, the IEPA and the WCHD were present. He said the meeting was not private.
“It was just informational,” he said.
No media outlets were informed of the meeting, Fuller said.
Previously, public meetings were held at the Northwest Community Center in July and August to discuss possible well water contamination after WCHD testing showed well contamination of Volatile Organic Chemicals benzene, toluene and xylene in as many as six neighborhood wells.
Media outlets and neighborhood residents were invited to those meetings held in late July and early August hosted by city, Illinois Department of Public Health and WCHD officials to discuss testing and resident options. At that time, residents were informed a hookup to city water would cost around $2,000 plus the cost of sealing off their wells, which is valued at approximately $600.
The IEPA became involved in the matter in September and began testing wells themselves in October. The number of wells reported tainted by VOCs has varied over the past four months.
From the Dec. 14-20, 2011, issue