Illinois EPA cites company for south suburban water woes

Data pix.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Ill. — The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has hit a private water provider with notice of several violations after high lead levels were detected in several south suburbs. Aqua Illinois first notified its customers in University Park, Green Garden and Monee Township about high lead levels on June 14. Nearly six weeks later, 1,500 households remain under a “do not consume” advisory.

Aqua Illinois officials have blamed the spike in lead levels to a change in the chemicals it uses to treat the water. The Illinois EPA now says the company failed to obtain the necessary permits to make those changes, a violation of IEPA rules.

State regulators also fault Aqua Illinois for failing to properly monitor and report water quality test results last year.

"Your supply did not collect the required number of sample results from a certified laboratory,” the IEPA violation notice reads.  All required lead and copper samples were not collected for the July-December 2018 monitoring period in University Park, according to the IEPA.

Aqua Illinois denies any alleged violations contributed to the lead problem or the difficulty in solving it.  “We don’t believe the issues associated with these notices of violations contributed to or worsened the lead contamination in University Park,” the company wrote in a statement.

University Park mayor Joseph Roudez has previously criticized the private water provider for not providing the community with water quality reports prior to June.

Aqua Illinois revealed Friday that it has suspended four members of its management and professional team while the company examined the details of the IEPA’s findings.

University Park officials say they were led to believe the problem would be resolved within several days, a claim Aqua Illinois disputes. The water crisis in these south suburban communities is now in its second month.

“It could take several months before this is resolved,” Aqua Illinois president Craig Blanchette told WGN’s Joe Donlon.

In the most recent community update posted July 22, Aqua Illinois officials said “water lead test results in University Park have fluctuated, both increasing an decreasing in some areas. It’s not unusual to see this fluctuation, particularly in the first few months of treatment.”

“We acknowledge that while we all would have hoped to see treatment showing progress, it hasn’t had enough time yet,” reads a statement on Aqua Illinois’ website for residents effected by the water problems.

Aqua Illinois officials insist older homes impacted by the high lead levels will see their numbers subside when residents let water run for 2-3 minutes first thing in the morning. They’ve provided residents with filters and bottled water.

For a full list of areas still under the "do not consume" order, click here.

Blanchette provided WGN with the following statement:

"Aqua Illinois is committed to operating with complete transparency with the safety of our customers as our top priority.

We have been working closely with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and other regulators since we issued the voluntary do not consume advisory June 14, and immediately launched an internal investigation. To date, we have identified the likely cause of elevated lead levels in a limited number of homes is due to water chemistry interacting with lead solder in the internal plumbing of homes built prior to 1990. (Lead solder was banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1986). As part of our commitment to resolve this situation, we have engaged nationally renowned experts in this field to complement our team’s efforts.

Aqua Illinois leadership makes every effort to comply with all federal and state regulations. We recently learned that IEPA has issued several regulatory violations relating to permitting and sampling. Although we continue working to gather the necessary information to gain a more comprehensive understanding of what took place, it is important to note we don’t believe the issues associated with these notices of violations contributed to or worsened the lead contamination in University Park. We want our customers to know that we take these actions very seriously and are actively working with the IEPA on a resolution.

Among the matters raised by the IEPA are permitting actions that took place in 2018. Aqua Illinois has since addressed these issues. During the process to change sources from well water to the Kankakee River, we installed a water main and changed treatment locations prior to receiving an IEPA permit. Though the changes were made prior to receiving the permits, the IEPA ultimately did issue the permits. The delay in applying for the permits, though it was eventually approved by the IEPA in 2018, was an oversight on our part. To correct this process, effective immediately, we have updated internal permit management practices to strengthen oversight of our permitting activities.

The other issues raised by the IEPA involve the method of selecting sampling locations during the second half of 2018. Based upon our own investigation, we learned, and proactively advised the IEPA, that several homes selected for compliance sampling did not meet the proper criteria due to the age of the homes. We have addressed this issue, adding about 40 pre-1986 sampling locations to the existing sample set, thanks to the cooperation of our customers. This ensures that our lead testing correctly represents the various property types, ages, and plumbing construction in the community.

As part of our holistic examination of the matter, Aqua has been and will continue to evaluate changes to processes and personnel to ensure we correct this situation and continue to improve our service for our customers and communities. As part of this process, Aqua has taken immediate action by suspending four members of the Aqua Illinois management and professional team while we thoroughly examine all the details around the IEPA’s findings.

As a company, we collectively work each day with integrity, respect and in the pursuit of excellence in all we do, and we are accountable when we fall short of those values.

The safety of our system is our top priority. We will continue to work with regulators, our own team and national water experts to restore and maintain safe drinking water for our customers."

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