Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration reversed course Monday and announced that it will replace residence halls at the Quincy veterans' facility, which housed victims of a Legionnaires' disease outbreak responsible for the deaths 13 people and making dozens more ill since 2015.
The plan, revealed by Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs Director Erica Jeffries at a legislative hearing in Chicago, comes after a pledge by the Republican governor less than two months ago that the state would replace antiquated plumbing that could provide harbor for the bacteria that causes the deadly, pneumonia-like malady.
"The cost and the disruption and the construction that would be involved, not to mention the time it would take to do this (plumbing replacement) would just not be worth the effort when you think about building a brand-new building," Jeffries said Monday. "We do not want to spend years tearing up 70-year-old buildings to put brand-new piping in when we know that might not be a total solution."
Rauner stayed at the home for a week in January to dramatize his efforts to get to the bottom of the outbreak. He has been pummeled by opponents in his re-election bid who say his administration's response has mishandled the crisis.
Jeffries, who did not cite a potential cost, said several of the buildings on the 130-year-old campus in western Illinois would be razed to make way for "state-of-the-art facilities" during the next three to five years.
At another point, Jeffries indicated that preliminary recommendations from task forces Rauner appointed would be delivered by March 31, with a final version due May 1. Rauner faces a GOP challenger in the primary election March 20.
The administration installed a $6.5 million water-treatment plant, adopted rigorous plumbing-fixture flushing protocols, installed filters on fixtures, and treated water with heat and chemicals, among other steps, in its effort to stop the problem.
After initially appearing in 2015, Legionnaire's disease returned to the facility in 2016 and 2017. Four more cases were confirmed last month.
Monday's hearing was called after the administration released an August 2016 report from Belleville-based consulting engineer BRiC Partnership suggesting steps to mitigate the problem, including replacing the underground water-distribution system and plumbing inside 15 campus buildings where the most susceptible residents live for $8 million.
Jeffries said in December that plumbing replacement could cost $500 million or more; in January, she told lawmakers about the BRiC report and said it put the price tag at $25 million to $30 million. She has never explained why she used estimates that, at a minimum, were more than four times higher than the actual number.
BRiC's 2016 report, which cost $20,000, listed about a dozen ideas for a total of $17 million. The administration paid BRiC another $40,000 to update and expand its 2016 report. That update released last month indicated plumbing replacement for the entire campus would be $11 million; expanded options for the other ideas combined would cost no more than $24 million.
Jeffries explained Monday that the August 2016 delivery of the BRiC report was just two months after the June completion of a $6.5 million water-treatment facility and wanted to test its effectiveness before taking any more actions. But Public Health officials had confirmed two more cases of Legionnaires' in late July, just days before BRiC's arrival on campus.