City approves annexation of well-contaminated homes

By Richard S. Gubbe
Contributing Writer

Rockford City Council approved the annexation of two “islands” of land parcels near Auburn and Central on Rockford’s west side Monday night, Feb. 13. The area in and around the annexation had been declared property with contaminated well water by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA). Meanwhile, there appears to be movement on when the investigation will begin into the source of pollution around the area that has been annexed.

By a unanimous vote without any public comments, the annexations of both islands were passed 13-0 and will become effective March 30. The annexation had received a 4-1 approval vote in a committee meeting Feb. 4. Homeowners will be notified by mail of the annexation, and a copy of the ordinance will be delivered to the Winnebago County Clerk.

The annexation of nine parcels of land on islands of parcels on Auburn Street and Johnston and Soper avenues came about after an annual review of municipal boundaries. The land included meets city guidelines of being fewer than 60 acres and located in isolated pockets of parcels already annexed to the city.

The proposal includes homes in a zone that was declared by the IEPA to have over-the-limit quantities of benzene found in well water. 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 compounds. 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.

The City of Rockford identifies land pockets each year around city limits that have had homes around it already connected to city water. Homes surrounded by city-annexed land can be automatically brought into the city after council approval.

The council approval came after the United States Environmental Protraction Agency (USEPA) offered to pay to hook up homes in that area. After discussions with the USEPA and the IEPA, the city offered 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 based on economic need.

The USEPA said work will begin soon 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 addresses.

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 IEPA last fall. The total project cost is expected to be $100,000 to the USEPA. The money can be recouped if an offender of the leak 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.

The IEPA 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 off the contaminated wells, paying all costs.

The IEPA has been working since October to determine the source of the contamination. Groundwater in the area flows west to east, according to the IEPA.

When contacted last week, an IEPA spokesman said no source has been identified as of yet, saying the investigation is “ongoing.”

IEPA officials have told The Rock River Times in the past that once the source of contamination has been identified, the IEPA will begin the second phase of its investigation into alleged dumping of toxic waste stemming from the Amerock factory in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Spokesman Maggie Carson and IEPA investigators said last December the second phase of the investigation would take place once the source of well contamination was identified. The investigation into toxic dumping was reported then to take place soon after Jan. 1.

Last week, Carson told TRRT one reason the investigation was being held up was a lack of approval by the Northwest Community Center (NWCC) to inspect the property, which has been alleged to be part of the dumping ground of chemicals and other toxic waste materials. Other areas alleged by former Amerock employees and current and former residents of the area include the land in and around Kent Creek to the north and west of the former Amerock plant, which is now held by a reclamation company.

Feb. 13, TRRT contacted Carson and asked for a clarification about when the process of examining the property around the NWCC would begin and if she had contact with NWCC Executive Director Jim Peterson.

Tuesday morning, Feb. 14, Carson sent an e-mail replying, “We are still working on access from the Northwest Community Center to their property west of the former Amerock facility.” She added that investigative team member Mark Wagner “has been working directly with the Board President, rather than Mr. Peterson. The (IEPA) Agency has provided them with the standard access agreement language, and have had subsequent discussions with them. We hope to be able to resolve any remaining issues soon.”

Peterson sent an e-mail later Tuesday morning, Feb. 14, to update the matter.

We are in the process of finalizing the access agreement with the Illinois EPA, which we hope to wrap up within the next week or so,” Peterson said. “The IEPA had previously indicated that they would like to begin surveying the property as early as February, and both parties are doing what we can to make this possible. This is a cooperative effort, and everyone involved wants answers as soon as possible. We are happy to keep the public updated as to the progress moving forward.”

When asked Monday if the NWCC plans to allow the IEPA to survey the land for possible pollutants, Peterson said: “Why wouldn’t we? We don’t have a problem with it. They said they were going to do nothing until the spring on this issue. They said when they were going to move on this, they would let us know.”

In numerous interviews with IEPA representatives, weather was never named as a factor to hold up the investigation, only naming of the source of the well water contamination. IEPA officials began collecting data from the Winnebago County Health Department and from IEPA tests to analyze the flow of contamination in September. Water tests by the county began in July at the properties that were annexed Monday night.

From the Feb. 15-21, 2012, issue

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