City poised to absorb contaminated well homes

The above map shows the area of concern for well water contamination on Rockford’s west side. Work will begin next week to hook up 15 homes with contaminated wells to city water, The Rock River Times has learned. (Map courtesy of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency)

By Richard S. Gubbe
Contributing Writer

The Codes and Regulations Committee for the Rockford City Council approved the proposed annexation of two “islands” of land parcels near Auburn and Central on Rockford’s west side. The area in and around the annexation has been declared property with contaminated well water and coincides with other city water hook-ups.

The 4-1 approval vote in a committee meeting held Monday night, Feb. 6, at City Hall cleared the way for full city council passing Feb. 13.

To have water paid for by the USEPA — that is a great thing, a great opportunity for the individuals to get off contaminated wells and have safe drinking water. That’s huge,” Deputy Director of Community & Economic Development Todd M. Cagnoni told The Rock River Times (TRRT).

It’s our opinion that everyone is to have safe drinking water,” Cagnoni added. “The annexation will allow the area the opportunity to resolve the outstanding contaminations of the private wells with the availability of City of Rockford water.”

The annexation of nine parcels of land located on islands of parcels on and north of Auburn Street and Johnston and Soper avenues came about after an annual review of municipal boundaries, Cagnoni said. The land included requirements of being less than 60 acres and is in isolated pockets of parcels already annexed.

The proposal includes homes in a zone that was declared by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) to have over-the-limit quantities of benzene found in the water supply.

The area of concern, as identified by the IEPA, encompasses land from Johnston to Alliance and from Auburn to Parkside. Tests of well water by the IEPA and the Winnebago County Health Department last summer and fall found high levels of Volatile Organic Chemicals. The most prominent was benzene, a component of gasoline, which had levels recorded of 1.30 milligrams per liter when the allowable EPA limit is .005.

We’ve had a number of annexations over the years, and it’s not uncommon where the wells and the septic systems have had problems,” Cagnoni said. “Typically, it’s septic systems rather than pollution.”

The City of Rockford identifies land pockets each year around city limits that have had some homes connect to the city water supply, thus automatically annexing them. Homes surrounded by city-annexed land can be automatically brought into the city after council approval.

The Rockford City Council approval appears a formality after the United States Environment Protection Agency offered to pay for homes with contaminated wells for a free hook-up to city water. After discussions with the USEPA and the IEPA, the city chimed in to offer financially qualifying homes free plumbing repairs if the added water pressure causes damage. A grant through the city’s Human Services department will cover the repair costs if the homeowner qualifies.

Work will begin next week to hook up 16 homes with contaminated wells to residents on Auburn and Parkside streets and Johnston, Soper and Alliance avenues. The blocks on Alliance, Soper and Johnston are at 1200 and 1300.

These islands are created typically on an annual basis, and we move forward on them as they come forward,” Cagnoni said. “We have a city policy when you connect to city water, it’s annexed as well. People are not forced to be on city water. These islands were created over the course of the last year. The city homes (around them) requested water in the last year.”

The USEPA has contracted Stenstrom Companies LTD. of Rockford to connect the homes that have been determined to have benzene-polluted well water testing, as confirmed by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency last fall. The total project cost is expected to be $100,000 to the USEPA. The money can be recouped if an offender is identified.

The area in the current annexation is 3.19 acres and consists of nine parcels, including six homes, three vacant lots and an industrial lot on Auburn Street. The area is serviced by the Rock River Water Reclamation District.

Cagnoni said all homes in that area will be city-owned if the annexation passes. If a homeowner did not take the offer, Cagnoni said they would have had to prove their property had safe water. The annexation is consistent with the city’s adopted policy of annexing properties under 60 acres in size.

The annexation is part of the designated ultimate boundary for the City of Rockford,” Cagnoni said. “The ultimate boundary allows the city to make decisions concerning services provided and the location of said services such as fire and police protection, water main, and the maintenance and upkeep of public utilities. The adopted annexation policy lessens the tax burden on existing residents by distributing the tax costs across all residents that benefit from being in and near the City of Rockford.”

The Illinois EPA had requested assistance last October from the USEPA to provide alternative drinking water supplies for contaminated well homes in the immediate area where wells exceeded the Maximum Contaminant Level for benzene.

The USEPA offered 16 property owners to connect to the City of Rockford Water System last December and also offered to close the contaminated well, paying all costs.

This annexation, in conjunction with the efforts of the City of Rockford, Winnebago County Health Department, Illinois EPA and U.S. EPA is a win-win for the community,” Cagnoni said. “The homes and businesses will have access to safe water and resolve an outstanding issue of polluted and contaminated wells.

The city’s annexation policy has been in existence since 1984, resulting in the annexation of thousands of acres,” Cagnoni added. “We are committed to providing excellence in city services.”

Rockford Ald. Ann Thompson-Kelly agreed that the passing of the annexation in her 7th Ward Monday, Feb. 6, is expected.

We wanted to make sure we were all on the same page,” Thompson-Kelly told TRRT. “We had the ability to provide safe city water to homes nearly surrounded by the city of Rockford. It needs to be done. I commend the staff for wanting to and helping those homeowners who are affected by it.”

The IEPA is working to determine the source of the contamination. Groundwater in the area flows west to east, according to the IEPA.

When contacted Feb. 6, an IEPA spokesman said no source has been identified as of yet. “This investigation is ongoing,” spokesman Maggie Carson said.

Asked by TRRT when the investigation of the alleged dumping of chemicals in and around Kent Creek to the north of the annexed homes will take place, Carson said, “We are still working on access from the Northwest Community Center to their property west of the former Amerock facility.”

When asked if she thought the investigation into the alleged dumping — which began last September by TRRT and the IEPA — was moving slowly, Thompson-Kelly said she would not point fingers but rather “find solutions.” Thompson-Kelly said the source of contamination of the wells “is being addressed. They have their guidelines, and I appreciate them bringing that attention to the matter. As far as a timeline, I have to work with them.”

Thompson-Kelly said she is awaiting test results in the area around Kent Creek and added who is to blame is not as important as cleaning up the area.

I think they should address the same issue with other manufacturing here in the community,” Thompson-Kelly said. “When you have a city in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s when manufacturing was hot and heavy, laws weren’t in effect then. Now, we have to address it. If we don’t do that, things go neglected.”

Thompson-Kelly said local, state and federal government officials need to work together to resolve all pollution issues in that area.

I think there are a lot of people who care about this and are doing things about it,” she said.

From the Feb. 8-14, 2012, issue

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