I was stunned to see an explosion of investigative reports and articles in the news today, stating that village officials in suburban Crestwood had knowingly pumped contaminated water from a tainted well into their municipal water supply. And continued to do so for more than two decades after the U.S. EPA alerted them to the contamination! According to the article in today's Tribune, the EPA warned Crestwood officials back in 1986 about the dangerously high levels of perchloroethylene in their main water supply. Officials reportedly placated the EPA by agreeing to pipe in their drinking water from Lake Michigan, and the well was downgraded to an emergency-only, back-up water source, which eased state requirements for regular testing.
The article goes on to say that the Village of Crestwood continued to draw up to 20% of it's monthly water supply from the tainted well until 2007, when the EPA finally shut it down altogether. It took a vigilant mother of a child with cancer to get the attention of the EPA, and now the whole town is outraged. A segment on this evening's news focused Crestwood residents with (or in remission from) a myriad of cancers, suggesting that these illnesses could be chronic health effects of, or the possible result of long-term exposure to, a drinking water contaminant.
Is this possible in this day and age? You betcha-- have you ever watched Erin Brokovitch?!? Was it shady for Crestwood officials to tout low water prices while drawing drinking water from a contaminated well? Most definitely. Is it illegal? Well.... not exactly.
Under the SDWA, the EPA has set National Primary Drinking Water Standards, which identifies and classifies 86 known water contaminants, along with health risks and likely contamination sources for each. The EPA has studied these contaminants and set a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) and goal levels (MCLG) for each. While perchloroethylene, a commonly used dry-cleaning solvent, is not on the list, the two organic chemicals that form when PCE mixes with and breaks down in groundwater, dichloroethylene and vinyl chloride, are. Dichloroethylene, which can cause liver problems, has a MCL that ranges from 0.007 to 0.1 mg/L. Vinyl chloride, which increases cancer risk and is also a suspected cause of autism, has a MCL for just 0.002 mg/L and a MCLG of 0. This is some bad stuff! The October, 2007, test revealed vinyl chloride in an amount that was more than twice the legal MCL for that chemical.
However, this water was diluted with treated water from Lake Michigan, which likely reduced contaminant levels enough to pass the MCL tests, which are performed daily by all water treatment centers. However, saying that "dilution is the solution to pollution" is like advocating the withdrawl method of birth control; a crap shoot at best. If any of these contaminates exceed the MCLs, the local public water system (PWS) is required to notify their customers under the Public Notification requirements outlined within the SDWA. A tier-one notice requires notification within 24 hours if the contamination poses an immediate threat to human health, while a tier-two notice gives the PWS 30 days to report excess contaminant levels or improperly treated water. Crestwood only ever sent out tier-three notices, which were little more than cheery updates sent out with the annual water-quality reports.
The State of Illinois also has a right-to-know act that was passed in 2005, which would require either state officials or the Department of Public Health to notify residents when their soil or groundwater had been contaminated, even if the public water system failed to do so. Even the best technology available cannot remove all contaminants from the drinking water, so we are all drinking a chemical cocktail of sorts, regardless of where we live. It is the job of the EPA and our PWS to ensure that the contaminants we ingest are in such miniscule amounts that they pose the least possible threat to human health.
Although a statement was reportedly issued to Crestwood residents by the Health Department in August of last year, it was released nearly a year after the well was capped for good... and some may argue that the notice came nearly a quarter-century too late.