Signs of suburban lead problem first surfaced in 2018, records show

WGN Investigates
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Ill. — University Park residents received a scary warning last month: Don’t drink the water because of high lead levels.

Now, WGN Investigates has learned tests last year at five homes showed high levels of lead — and two of those homeowners said the private supplier, Aqua Illinois, never told them.

Aqua first notified customers in University Park, Green Garden and Monee Township on June 14 of this year about high lead levels in the drinking water. An estimated 1,500 households, all in University Park, remain under a “do not consume” advisory.

“It could take several months before this is resolved at this point,” Aqua Illinois President Craig Blanchette tells WGN Investigates.

The problems began after Aqua changed the suburb’s water source from well water to the Kankakee River in January 2018. A new treatment chemical was added to strip out the iron in the system.

Blanchette said that caused lead in the plumbing systems of some older homes to lead into the water.

Experts say there’s no such thing as safe levels of lead.

Ingesting even small concentrations can damage children’s brains, and contribute to heart disease and other problems in adults. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined levels above 15 parts per billion require action.

In August 2018, eight months after switching the source, Aqua sampled the water at some homes in the village and found lead levels at five homes exceeded 15 parts per billion, signaling the potential for a much larger problem.

Residents at two of the homes tell WGN Investigates they were never informed and continued to drink the water, potentially putting their health at risk.

University Park mayor Joseph Roudez has previously criticized Aqua for not providing the community with water quality reports prior to June of this year.

Blanchette could not say for certain if the August 2018 test results were shared with residents. But he said, in general, the company shares data with customers and agencies like the Illinois EPA.

In an email, an Illinois EPA spokeswoman said the agency had received certification from Aqua Illinois that all customers were notified of the August 2018 water testing results within 30 days. The agency is now working to verify those claims.

Last week, the IEPA hit Aqua with notice of several violations relating to the sampling, maintenance and operation of the University Park system.

In response, Aqua Illinois said it suspended four members of its management and professional team while the company examines the details of the IEPA’s findings.

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