UNIVERSITY PARK, Ill. — Patience ran dry a long time ago for Ruth Redmon because of what she has to go through to get a glass of water in her home of almost 20 years.
Since 2019, she has been using bottled water supplied by University Park’s private water provider, Aqua Illinois.
This fall, she reached out once again to WGN Investigates, hoping to unclog the system.
“Breathtaking for lack of a better word,” Redmon said. “I’ve had to adapt to a new way of cooking, a new way of living. It has been a life-changing ordeal.”
Redmon has heavy, plastic jugs of water all over her house — on the kitchen table, the kitchen counter and in the garage. Some she buys for drinking, the rest she gets free of charge from Aqua.
“Twelve gallons of water a week. To cook with, drink with, brush your teeth with,” she said.
Why go to such lengths? She’s afraid of the brain-damaging lead that’s plagued the water since Aqua switched its water supply from community wells to the Kankakee River in 2018.
Early on the company’s CEO explained how it happened in the process of ridding the water of iron.
“It’s something about the way that we changed our process, something about the treatment and chemistry when we changed our water source,” Aqua Illinois President Craig Blanchette said. “It caused the protective coating inside the pipes in the home to be removed, exposing the lead to the water.”
The company reported that it consulted with experts before hand and said the problem couldn’t have been predicted. As many as 1,500 of the village’s 7,900 residents in homes mostly built prior to the late 1980’s were put into a “Do Not Consume” advisory.
There is no safe amount of lead to consume. But the EPA requires action when 15 parts per billion are detected in at least 10% of the samples.
WGN Investigates received data from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency that included samples taken since the beginning of 2022. It showed two dozen homes above the actionable level. Some in the last six months as high as 76, 97, even one spike at 1,100 parts per billion.
“This is related to the science and crumbling old infrastructure that’s around Illinois,” University Park Mayor Joseph Roudez III said. He took office just days before the water crisis broke.
He said after all this time, there is progress.
“We’ve been battling day in and day, out ensuring our residents have the best access to clean and healthy drinking water,” he said. “I’m not going to say we’re all the way there now, but we’re going in the good direction.”
Aqua and the Illinois EPA routinely test the water for lead. Aqua said it has now met the federal benchmark for two consecutive six-month periods between July and December of 2021 and January through June of this year. That means 90% of the tested homes were under the 15 ppb.
In a statement to WGN Investigates, Aqua Illinois spokesperson Kim Morreale wrote, “The data validate that our treatment efforts have been effective, and that for a full year, overall water quality in University Park achieved the same benchmark for water quality that is required for all other water systems across the country.”
That said, Roudez, whose own home is on the advisory says he still uses bottled water.
Which begs the question, if it’s better, why is the bottled water still needed? The mayor said it’s part of a court order, not the test results.
“It has nothing to do with the quality of the water. It’s what the courts are making Aqua,” Roudez said.
And he, like Redmon, who’s retired on a fixed income, feels the insult added to injury by still having to pay high water bills.
When asked if Redmon was tempted at times not to pay the water bill she said, “All the time – and there have been times where I could not pay it.”
She said she can’t help but wonder if a culture bias slowed the pace.
“I do kind of think that way sometimes and I really hate to think that way,” she said. “But this area is predominantly African-American and I hate to think that because of race, you’re kind of pushing this problem along.”
Tom Zimmerman is leading the class action lawsuit on behalf of the affected residents.
“I think a lot of this has to do with the community we’re dealing with,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a poor community, we’ve seen this around the country, Jackson, Mississippi, Flint, Michigan, now University Park and I don’t think it’s getting the attention it deserves.”
While the lawsuit moves through the discovery phase, Redmon has little interest in a lawsuit. She wants a sense of trust back.
“If it’s taken this long, I probably still wouldn’t trust it when you say it’s fixed, because it’s taken so long.” Redmon said.
“To be honest with you, it’s going to take some time for the residents to get that trust. To trust the water company and it’s not going to happen overnight,” he said.
So far, Redmon says neither she nor her adult son have tested positive for lead in their blood. The mayor hopes there will be an established process for any residents who may develop health problems down the road.
The Illinois EPA referred me to the attorney general’s office, which is in litigation with Aqua Illinois. By the end of September, Aqua says it provided residents with one and a half million gallons of bottled water as it awaits another round of testing.