By John O’Connor
AP Political Writer
SPRINGFIELD — Engineers told Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration 18 months ago that replacing problematic plumbing at a veterans’ home beset by Legionnaires’ disease would cost $8 million and “should be carefully considered,” according to a report obtained by The Associated Press.
That estimate is far below the estimate — up to $30 million — that Illinois Veterans’ Affairs Director Erica Jeffries has repeatedly told lawmakers it would cost to replace aged and corroded pipes at the Quincy veterans home. Legionnaires’ there has led to the deaths of 13 residents since 2015 and has sickened dozens more, including three new cases this week.
The Veterans’ Affairs Department took no action on the August 2016 report by Belleville-based BRiC Partnership. Then, on Jan. 8 — facing questions from lawmakers reviewing the administration’s response to the outbreak — the agency requested the plumbing replacement as an “emergency” project, according to emails the AP obtained with the report under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
Sen. Tom Cullteron, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the report shows the administration “has been misleading us on facts and figures.”
The Republican Rauner has faced intense scrutiny over the handling of the crisis after WBEZ Chicago reported that following 12 deaths in 2015, the disease returned in 2016 and 2017, leading to another death last fall. The disease is carried by Legionella bacteria in water vapor that’s inhaled.
Veterans’ Affairs spokesman Dave MacDonna said Friday that the agency has followed advice from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He noted that Rauner’s administration spent $6 million on a new water treatment plant in 2016, and said the BRiC report later that summer “served as a snapshot for additional measures that could be taken.”
He did not explain why Jeffries repeatedly told members of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee that BRiC’s report estimated plumbing replacement at $25 million to $30 million.
In fact, BRiC made nearly a dozen suggestions in its 2016 report for improving water quality which would cost a combined $16.9 million, or about $17.5 million in current dollars.
BRiC consultants noted what CDC has pointed out in several reports from Quincy — that ancient, galvanized steel pipes at the 134-year-old campus have corroded and built up with sediment that provide a breeding ground for Legionella bacteria.
The suggestions included replacing plumbing in 15 of the campus buildings where aged, weakened residents are most susceptible to the pneumonia-like illness for $5.8 million and underground distribution piping campus-wide for $2 million.
The benefits of replacing the troublesome plumbing “are great and should be carefully considered,” the report said, adding that if undertaken, it should be done “as soon as possible.”
BRiC managing partner Thomas Buchheit told the AP Friday that he could not discuss the report without clearance from his client, the Illinois Capital Development Board.
Cullerton, a Villa Park Democrat who led two hearings on the issue, was told of the report on Friday.
“They need to be honest with the General Assembly because as more information comes out, we find that the commentary at these hearings is dishonest to us,” said Cullerton.
Rauner said again on Friday that “we have done everything that the national experts have said we should do,” when asked about the crisis in light of a Chicago Tribune report that one of the newly diagnosed cases of Legionnaires’ is a 79-year-old Air Force veteran who was the governor’s guest at his Jan. 31 State of the State address.
Rauner met Ivan Jackson, who was first hospitalized Feb. 10, during a weeklong stay at Quincy that ended Jan. 10 with Rauner’s declaration that he would replace the plumbing.
That came two days after a Veterans Affairs staffer emailed the Capital Development Board requesting plumbing replacement which, “in the best interest of the State and the residents, I want to request (as) an emergency project.” She said it was necessary because “frail, elderly residents at the home (are) still becoming sickened” and said the CDC recommended it.
Jeffries followed up with an email that said while necessary, “it was not specifically recommended by the CDC.” The Capital Development Board replied that it “does not have sufficient emergency appropriations” for the work.
Rauner has since named a task force to study that and other options, such as drilling a well on campus to provide the home with its own water source. That was included in the BRiC report, too, costing $800,000. Other options include replacing cooling towers attached to the air conditioning and high-tech disinfection and filtration systems. After Rauner’s visit, BRiC was asked to update its report to consider replacing plumbing in all campus buildings, not just those used by the most vulnerable residents. That report, issued earlier this month, put an $11.2 million price tag on plumbing replacement.