Illinois
6:35 am
Mon April 29, 2013

Small Town Consumed By Toxic Water Mess

Wedron, Il
Credit Mike Moen

For several weeks, WNIJ has been following the probe into groundwater contamination in the small town of Wedron. In our latest report, we learn about the long road ahead for this LaSalle County community as it tries to eliminate a problem that has consumed the area in many ways.

Morning Edition version by Mike Moen

Inside the home of Peggy Burress, water running from her bathroom sink appears normal.

“It looks clear. There’s really not a lot of smell as opposed to what there used to be” Burress said.

The smell Burress is referring to is gasoline. Eight private wells in Wedron have tested positive for benzene and other chemicals. The U.S. EPA, which is investigating the matter, says the levels it has seen exceed health standards.

While long term solutions are sorted out, affected homes have been fitted with special filters.

Burress shows us the one in her home. It’s a long blue device connected to plastic piping.  

“From what I’m understanding it’s a carbon filter with a filter inside. There’s a log here to tell us how many gallons of water we’ve used” Burress said.

Burress says they try not to use too much of it, especially when showering.

“It’s a quick Army shower. Rinse down, step out, wash down and rinse back off” Burress said.

The filter, along with bottled water also provided by the EPA, is the last line of defense for Burress and her family as they try to protect themselves from harmful chemicals and foul odors.

The EPA continues to say there are several potential sources of the contamination. The state health department began collecting samples in late 2011 after residents reported the smell in their water. The federal EPA was eventually contacted and has conducted routine testing. The agency says it will keep monitoring the situation by pulling more samples this spring and summer, while talking with parties suspected of being the sources. The goal of the talks is to get those responsible to fund a long-term water supply for the community.

In the meantime, this unincorporated town of about 100 people is preparing itself for a protracted remediation.

Melissa Lenczewski is a geology professor at Northern Illinois University. She says once officials are ready to move from investigating to clean-up, they’ll be starting a process that can take a long time.

“The most common treatment that you do is pump and treat. You pump out the water that is contaminated. You treat it above surface to remove all the contaminants, and then you put the water back into the ground. In order to do this, they’re going to have to do a large pump and treat in order to remediate the site” Lenczewski said.

Lenczewski says even for a small underground spill, this process can take decades.

“There are faster methods for clean-up, but they’re extremely expensive and they’re very intrusive to the environment” Lenczewski said.

The EPA stresses that it’s too early to discuss which clean-up method it will use. In addition to water, the agency also has to decide how it will clean the contaminated soil.

The situation is also creating stress for residents who don’t have tainted water. Robert Kuter lives on the edge of town. He moved to Wedron more than a decade ago. He says he’s worried about property values and how the problem might scare away any potential buyers. Kuter says there’s no point discussing the possibility of leaving.

“They cut our taxes in half to give us a break. But the bottom line is, whose gonna buy it? It’s a dead zone” Kuter said.

The LaSalle County Assessor’s Office confirms that adjustments have been made to home assessments in Wedron, based on the town’s environmental issue.

Long-term health effects are another concern. NIU’s Melissa Lenczewski says drinking water tainted with benzene, which is a cancer causing chemical, isn’t the only risk factor.

“Breathing it in – every time you take a shower you are volatilizing all of those compounds in that shower with you, and then you’re taking those into your lungs” Lenczewski said.

Lenczewski says that of course than create breathing problems for those exposed to the chemicals.

All of these factors are surrounded by a growing sense of frustration in Wedron. The town dealt with a similar scare back in the 1980’s. The Illinois EPA took steps to bring healthy water to those affected, but its investigation never identified a source of that contamination.

Some wonder if something more could have been done all these years to prevent today’s pollution woes. Some residents also question whether their neighbors aren’t willing enough to complain, in part because many have ties to the company that operates a sand plant in town. Wedron Silica, which is listed as a potential contamination source, is working with the EPA in its investigation. Parent company, Fairmount Minerals, says it is cooperating with investigators and has offered to fund an environmental study. State and federal EPA officials have said they do not respond to any criticism pointed at either agency.

Wedron resident Peggy Burress, whose husband works at the sand plant, acknowledge the mixed feelings. She says it shows how big of a problem they have on their hands. 

“It’s giving us a black flag-type-thing of ‘you don’t want to be there’ Burress said.

But Burruess says she has faith in federal officials and the company to sort out a mess that is plaguing this community.