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Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016 12:10 am

Water wars

Bad water feeds rage in Chatham

 

Grubs.

Just when Craig Hall figured he’d heard it all, fans at a recent Glenwood High School football game recognized him as a South Sangamon Water Commission trustee and complained about a gridiron grub infestation.

“Grubs on the field because – of course – of the water,” Hall recalls. “I had four people say that. I truly think they were serious.”

Grubs are a new twist, but Hall and other members of the South Sangamon Water Commission have grown accustomed to complaints about water that began four years ago, when a new water plant went live and produced a flow of complaints from Chatham residents who say that municipal water is corroding pipes, appliances and hot water tanks. Skin rashes and hair loss have been blamed on the water, even as regulators have said that the water doesn’t pose a health threat.

“Water supplied by South Sangamon Water Commission has complied with the requirements of regulatory agencies and there have been no water quality violations,” wrote a team of consultants in a report issued last spring, after complaints prompted the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to order a review of Chatham’s water woes.

But that doesn’t mean the water isn’t yucky. It’s ranged from cloudy to brown, residents complain, and sometimes smells of rotten eggs or chlorine. Faucets, shower heads and hot water heaters have corroded and crusted up with gunk. The consulting team last spring found numerous deficiencies in the design and operation of the water plant near Rochester, where repairs and maintenance have gone unaddressed.

Lack of money is a concern, and the water commission is now considering a rate increase to fund a $500,000 capital improvement plan for a water system that has already cost millions of dollars more than projected. The decision to build the plant came in 2010 after four decades of Chatham buying water from Springfield.

Despite assurances from consultants and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, some Chatham residents are worried.

“The EPA says it’s safe to drink,” says village trustee Mark Clayton, who says that the village should not have gone into the water business. “But there’s so much concern in the community and so much distrust with this administration…that people are reluctant to take anything to heart.”

Facebook is filled with posts from folks who won’t let pets drink tap water. The water, residents-turned-activists warn, is corrosive – if it’s bad enough to damage hot water heaters and dishwashers, who knows what it might do to the human body. There is talk of Flint. Even those with no sign of trouble face danger down the road, say residents who have plenty of trouble now.

Beyond questions of health, residents accuse public officials of corruption and conflicts of interest while the plant was under construction. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Illinois State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have all been contacted, according to activists who say that the water plant was an expensive, reckless boondoggle that never should have been built.

“We request aggressive legal action be pursued against any individual or group who failed to protect the Village of Chatham from this water supply causing damage to our health and homes,” reads an online petition addressed to Gov. Bruce Rauner, Sangamon County state’s attorney John Milhiser, Chatham Mayor Tom Gray and village trustees. “We also request immediate action be taken to get rid of this water supply so we can restore the value of our assets and prevent any further damage to the health of ourselves and our families.”

The petition is at once a condemnation of Chatham’s water supply and a question mark: Just how widespread is this problem, given that it took seven months to gather 1,000 signatures? More than 12,000 people live in Chatham, and anyone with an internet connection was free to sign the online petition.

Sentiment is sufficient enough that residents spilled out the door during a Sept. 13 village board meeting captured by a camera crew from the television show “60 Minutes.” The show reportedly plans to air a segment on a statewide anticorruption group called Edgar County Watchdogs that has posted critical online stories about Chatham water as well as topics such as questionable campaign spending by Illinois auditor general Frank Mautino and alleged corruption at the College of DuPage, a community college near Chicago.

Kirk Allen, founder of Edgar County Watchdogs, focuses on a 2010 ordinance that puts the village on the hook for more than $30 million in bond debt incurred in building the water plant, which opened in 2012 and is owned and operated by the water commission. Contrary to state law that covers municipal borrowing, the village board never passed an ordinance establishing a “fixed annual amount” that the village would pay to service the debt, Kirk says, which might somehow allow the village to walk away from the water commission despite financial guarantees contained in the 2010 ordinance.

Jewel Brant, a Chatham resident who suspects village water might be a health hazard, addresses residents during a Sept. 26 community meeting.
PHOTO BY BRUCE RUSHTON

 

Residents speak for more than an hour. Trustees pass around a corroded element from a hot water heater brought by Jewel Brant, who urges trustees to withdraw from the water commission. Paul Pachlhofer complains about an “incestuous relationship” between the village and the commission – among other things, he points out, both bodies once had the same lawyer, and a former village manager also was a water commissioner who oversaw water plant construction. Jeff Greer asks about water used to boil corn for the village’s annual sweet corn festival. There is shouting and loud applause as residents make their points.

“I built a house here,” says Doug Matthew. “I moved here. I want my kids to go to school here. I like it here. But I’m not going to risk my life or my kids’ lives.”

It’s powerful stuff, and the board shortly afterward goes into executive session. After more than an hour behind closed doors, trustees emerge and let their lawyer do the talking.

The board, village attorney Jeffrey Jurgens explains, plans to hire a law firm to determine the village’s legal obligations to the water commission. The firm, he says, will also examine whether bonds were properly issued. It is tantamount to saying that the village is exploring whether to abandon the commission, but Jurgens gives no assurances.

“This isn’t to say that one thing is going to happen or another thing is going to happen, but this is the first step in that process,” says Jurgens, without defining “process.”

“I think that there’s a desire on the part of the board to…try to be more productive with this entire situation,” Jurgens tells the crowd. “Nobody on the board likes for you guys to be out there yelling at us. And, vice versa, we don’t want you to feel like we’re ignoring what you’re saying or that we’re not hearing what you’re saying.”

Someone in the audience points out that the water commission is meeting next week to discuss a rate increase. Will anyone on the village board attend the meeting?

No one speaks up.

Escalating costs
The South Sangamon Water Commission was born from fights between Chatham and Springfield over water and development.

In the spring of 1997, Springfield, which then supplied the village with water, turned down the flow, prompting concerns that Chatham might run out of water. The village sued, a settlement was reached and Chatham started making plans for its own water plant almost immediately after signing a 1999 water contract with Springfield that included an exit clause: The village could terminate the contract on three years’ notice.

To hear Mayor Tom Gray talk, the village’s very existence was at stake. He points out that Leland Grove, Southern View and Jerome are all surrounded by Springfield. Similarly, Gray says, the city was threatening to choke off Chatham’s growth by withholding water or dictating development terms on land between the city and village. Both entities coveted tax revenue that could be generated by commercial development.

“They were (Springfield was) interested in surrounding all the communities and controlling things,” Gray says. “If you don’t have those stores, that sales-tax generation, you’re going to have higher property taxes.”

As it became clear that Chatham was serious about going into the water business, Springfield in 2009 proposed a new water contract that would eliminate a provision from the existing deal that restricted Chatham from annexing land north of the village. Under that scenario, the village, while free to grow, would pay more for water than Springfield residents. Alternatively, the city proposed, the village could pay the same rate as Springfield residents, with growth restrictions remaining in place. Less than three weeks after sending the proposed deal to the village, the city jacked up Chatham’s water rates by 17 percent.

It was too late for compromise. Chatham and New Berlin, which needed a new water supply to replace an aging one that had drawn scrutiny from regulators, created the South Sangamon Water Commission in 2009, and construction began on a water plant the following year. Costs were a concern before ground was broken.

Before construction began, Del McCord, then village manager and also a South Sangamon water commissioner, told his fellow commissioners that the commission must charge less for water than CWLP in order for the project to go forward. He suggested a rate of $4.60 per 1,000 gallons; five months later, and nearly two years before the first drop came out of wells near Rochester, the commission set the rate at $5.05. The price has climbed beyond what the commission envisioned in 2010, when it forecast a rate of $6.46 in 2025. The commission now charges $6.85 per 1,000 gallons and is contemplating a rate increase.

Chatham residents blame corrosive water for damaging this hot water heater element.
PHOTO BY BRUCE RUSHTON

 

The price of the water plant jumped from an estimated $24 million when construction began to more than $31 million by the time water started flowing in 2012. Even before construction began, concerns about the cost of pollution control threatened to scuttle the project.

Pollution concerns
The commission’s well field near the Sangamon River floods to the point that the plant manager has suggested buying a boat to allow access to wells during wet weather. The wells are less than 60 feet deep, and groundwater levels rise when it rains. As long ago as 2005, officials with the state Environmental Protection Agency  concluded that groundwater in the area was influenced by surface water, which necessitated potentially expensive pollution control measures to ensure that contaminants from surface water would be removed from well water.

The state initially told engineers hired by Chatham that water from wells likely would have to be filtered with equipment that would require around-the-clock staffing. The village couldn’t afford that, and so engineers proposed alternative filtering technology. The EPA ultimately approved a membrane filtering system that doesn’t require constant human supervision, and a permit was issued. Among other things, the membrane filters are supposed to help remove manganese, a suspected culprit when water turns nasty in Chatham.

Once construction began, the water commission pushed the EPA to reclassify the well field so that water from wells would not be deemed under the influence of surface water, a move that could, presumably, reduce pollution control costs. The effort prompted a warning from the engineering firm that designed the plant.

“I may be wrong about this, but the only reason that one would attempt to reclassify the acquifer…would be to...route unfiltered water through the plant to create finished water,” Joe Pisula, a vice president at Donohue and Associates, the firm that designed the plant, wrote in a 2011 email to McCord and other water commission officials. “(T)he wells are shallow and they are in flood-prone areas and common sense tells us that surface water could influence them.”

Even if the EPA reclassified the well field, Pisula urged that the water be filtered through the membrane system, and the plant has done that. But the effectiveness of membrane filtering was questioned last spring by a consulting team hired after the EPA ordered the water commission to study water quality issues.

While the plant had successfully removed iron from water, the consultants found that manganese levels were sometimes high, albeit not to the point of threatening health. Raw water from wells was harder and more alkaline than the membrane filters were designed to handle, the consultant found. The plant wasn’t performing tests to ensure the integrity of the filtering system, in part due to equipment failures that hadn’t been fixed, reportedly due to financial constraints, the consultant determined. The tests were stopped in 2015 even though the state had required regular testing as a condition for granting a construction permit. Valves used in cleaning the membranes were faulty, the consultant determined, and results of monitoring to ensure that the membranes worked weren’t being reported to the EPA as required.

“Since membrane integrity testing is not being performed and effluent quality reports are not being reported, the performance of the membrane filters is in question,” the consultant wrote. The commission is considering a new filtration system and has spent more than $124,000 on engineers to design it.

The consultant found problems beyond filters. Plant operators didn’t know that they needed to routinely test for chloride, a corrosive substance that can damage home water pipes, the consultant found. Operators also didn’t have sufficient expertise to remove manganese from water using chemicals.

At least one problem was, and still is, obvious. The plant has no water tower to maintain pressure in water lines so that raw water can’t enter distribution pipes in the event a power outage knocks out pumps. The state allowed construction even though EPA regulations require elevated or pressurized tanks to maintain pressure in lines during power outages, the consultant reported.

The EPA, which issued a construction permit despite the lack of a water tower, last year barred the water commission from expanding its service area until it addresses the issue, although Chatham isn’t affected because the village has its own water tower. Kim Biggs, EPA spokeswoman, did not answer when Illinois Times sent an email asking why the agency approved construction plans that lacked a tower or pressurized tank.

The water commission plans to borrow $500,000 to enact a five-year capital improvement plan that includes slightly more than $100,000 for a pressurized water tank in lieu of a water tower. Commissioners have considered leasing a tank or buying a used one to save money. Wall Street has not been enamored. In May, Moody’s dropped the commission’s credit rating by four notches and assigned a negative outlook, expressing concerns about increasing expenses, a large debt burden and reliance on a relatively small number of people to pay the bills.

Flushing planned
In Chatham, the village plans to start flushing water pipes next week in a systemic effort to rid the village-owned distribution system from manganese believed to have come from water in the early days of the water commission, when efforts to control levels of the mineral that can foul water weren’t successful.

While the plant says that it has manganese under control, manganese that has settled in pipes may be coming loose, says interim village administrator Pat McCarthy. The village has enacted a $2.50 monthly charge on water bills, scheduled to last one year, to pay for the flushing, which will cost an estimated $160,000. The water commission that provided water with high levels of manganese stands to profit from the flushing operation, given that the village must pay for water that will shoot out fire hydrants and disappear down storm drains.

Greer, a resident who says he’s spent thousands of dollars on a filtering system for his home, is skeptical. Testing in 2012 had shown that the water was corrosive – while the water wasn’t dangerous by itself, it could dissolve copper or even lead from plumbing systems, which could, potentially, pose a health risk. Although the plant has taken steps to reduce corrosivity and regulators say the water is safe, Greer sees danger.

Consultants hired under orders from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency found problems in the operation of the water plant that opened in 2012.
PHOTO BY BRUCE RUSHTON

 

“Flushing can’t fix everything,” Greer says. “The water’s still corrosive.”

Greer is convinced that insiders profited from building the water plant, and he says that the FBI and state police have been contacted. Residents say that they’ve also called the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission – the plant can produce 2.2 million gallons a day, but bond buyers were told that it would produce 3.3 million gallons per day. That, Greer and other residents say, might constitute bond fraud.

The plant was designed so that it can be expanded to produce 3.3 million gallons per day, an amount far beyond what Chatham needs.

“It would be silly to spend all the money upfront to produce 3.3 million gallons because you couldn’t sell the water,” Mayor Gray points out.

Greer and other residents also point out that John Myers, a Springfield attorney, represented the village, New Berlin and the water commission for several years, which they suspect is a conflict of interest. The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission closed an investigation of Myers with no finding of wrongdoing.

Citing confidentiality requirements, Myers said that he cannot discuss the case. He remains the attorney for New Berlin but is no longer lawyer for Chatham or the water commission. He says that he stepped down as attorney for the commission because he didn’t want to become the focus of controversy; he says that he resigned as village attorney because new trustees were elected, and some weren’t comfortable that he could give objective advice.

While residents say they’ve called law enforcement to report suspected corruption, the mayor points out that there have been no arrests or charges filed.

“I think everything was done by the book,” Gray said. “As much as they’ve been saying it, law enforcement hasn’t been involved.”

Nearly 100 people skipped the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on Monday to gather at the Chatham Center to talk about water.

There is talk of health concerns. Some call for a forensic audit to scrutinize water commission spending. Some suggest hiring a lawyer, but it’s not clear just what a lawyer might do to resolve concerns about water.

Some gasp when Greer shows a video taken from the inside of the village water tank while it was being cleaned. The bottom is coated with black crud that resembles tar. Then Franklin Lewis, a retired engineer with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, speaks up.

“Almost any water tank you see will have that kind of stuff in the bottom,” says Lewis, who once oversaw 500 water systems in central Illinois.

The way Lewis sees it, the water plant initially contaminated village pipes with manganese. Now that the plant has a handle on manganese levels, the problem may well get better with flushing, he predicts. He says that his wife has complained about the taste, but he still drinks Chatham water. And he isn’t concerned that he’s risking his health.

“Oh, goodness – no,” he says.

In an interview, the mayor says that building the water plant was the right move.

“Even with hindsight, we should have gone ahead and built the water plant,” Gray says. “At the end, you’ve got to look at economic development, and water is the most precious commodity in the world. So, If you have your own water plant, I think you’re ahead of the game.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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