Illinois
6:34 am
Thu March 14, 2013

Small Town Attracts Big Name To Help With Toxic Water Mess

Stephanie Thompson holding a milk jug she says is full of contaminated well water

Concerns are growing over contaminated groundwater in a small northern Illinois community. Residents in Wedron report a strong gas odor coming from their spigots. Frustrated over the government’s response, they’ve asked a famed activist to help get some answers.

Morning Edition version by Mike Moen

In a small high-school gymnasium north of Wedron, Stephanie Thompson carries around a plastic milk jug filled with discolored water.

“This is what they expect us to bathe our kids in,” Thompson says to those within earshot.

Trying to create awareness for those who have yet to experience the problem she has dealt with, Thomspon encourages people around her to get a whiff of what’s inside the container. Those brave enough to try recoil as their senses are overcome with a gas-like odor.

Thompson and the dozens of other people inside the gym had just wrapped up a Q and A session with Erin Brockovich and her team, which includes an environmental scientist and a lawyer. Brockovich, who drew fame after the landmark case involving Pacific Gas and Electric Company of California, was contacted by Thompson, who says serious problems with her well water began to surface a few years ago.

“We always had bad water. It smelled bad and tasted kind of funny. But the smell of the gasoline didn’t happen until 2009,” Thompson said.

Thompson says she first reached out to local officials and the EPA, but was not satisfied with the help she was getting. The general consensus at the town meeting with Brockovich was that the EPA was dragging its heels.

Brockovich and her team assured the crowd they were there to lend a helping hand to get a sense of how big of a problem the town is dealing with. And they weren’t shy in suggesting that legal action could be a necessary step against the suspected polluter, Fairmount Minerals.

“If these people have lost their property values, they’ve lost their right to use their wells, and they have a health impact, often times, a legal issue does ensue because they’re entitled to be compensated for that because the polluter polluted them,” Brockovich said.

Team Brockovich and some in the crowd said while there’s been talk of other potential sources of the contamination, they are almost certain that it was caused by Fairmount, which has a sand mining factory in Wedron.  

Brockovich’s environmental expert Bob Bowcock says they’ve already done some initial testing through a lab in California. Drawing samples from a handful of homes, he says the chemicals they have found, including Benzene, all point to the company.

“The carbons have been found at extreme levels. The lab we used compared them to free product,” Bowcock said.

Bowcock says some of the tests show benzene levels 500-thousand times the maximum federal limit. He says their results have been submitted to federal officials. Bowcock also says that filtration systems provided by federal investigators aren’t enough to protect affected homes.

On its website, the federal EPA says it has done some testing of private well water in Wedron, and that it found elevated levels of benzene in a handful of wells, and in the soil. But it says more work needs to be done to pinpoint an exact source. Calls were made to the agency, but officials said they were not in a position to comment.

An official with the Illinois EPA, which has also done work at the site, says they would be interested to know the testing methods of Brockovich’s team, while also suggesting that the results might be welcome if they steered federal investigators in the right direction.

Meanwhile, officials with the company at the center of all this, Fairmount Minerals, says the only tests they’re aware of have not linked them to the situation. In a statement, it says it’s working closely with the EPA, and that it also plans to hire an outside firm to conduct some tests.

In the meantime, Brockovich and her associates say they’ll do more well testing while gathering information from local residents as they prepare their next step.

“Now our purpose os to help you find answers and help you make the best decision on behalf of the community, your neighbor, your family and your health, because there is nothing more important,” Brockovich told the crowd.

And if that means a drawn out legal battle, Brockovich appears ready. Some of the health results and financial disbursement of settlement funds from her landmark case have been called into question in recent years. But for many residents in the tiny village of Wedron, they say there appears to be a feeling of hope that a solution might be closer than once thought.