by Mike Bryson
Would you pay an extra $35 a year on your water bill to ensure that the water coming out of your tap were not being deliberately laced with carcinogens so toxic that the EPA has determined there is no safe level of exposure to them?
Most people would. Yet for 21 years in the Chicago south suburb of Crestwood, IL (population 11,000), top village officials deliberately pumped water from a well source contaminated with toxic dry-cleaning solvents and by-products in order to supply up to 20% of the town’s water and thus cut its expense of using clean Lake Michigan water for its drinking supply. This story was first reported in 2009 by the Chicago Tribune‘s environmental reporter, Michael Hawthorne, and a series of articles since has documented ongoing developments in the now-infamous Crestwood water scandal.
The latest news: this Friday, two federally-indicted Crestwood officials — Theresa Neubauer, the former police chief and water clerk, and Frank Scaccia, the former certified water operator, both of whom worked under longtime mayor Chester Stranczek — were given probation in federal court for their role in poisoning the public water supply for over two decades. Despite masterminding a plot to save the village money and supposedly help ensure his perpetual re-election by overseeing deceptions that including keeping up two sets of water records — an accurate one for the Village government, and a whitewashed one for the Illinois EPA — the now elderly Stranczek has not been charged. No-one is going to prison for perpetuating this gross violation of the public trust, though Neubauer will perform 200 hours of community service and Scaccia must serve a six-month period of home confinement.
It’s hard to imagine a more blatant case of environmental injustice for members of this working-class community who have experienced elevated cancer rates over the past two decades, as documented in 2010 by the IL Department of Public Health. Despite being instructed in the late 1980s to shut down a water well contaminated with the dry-cleaning solvent perchloroethylene, vinyl chloride, and other toxins, Neubauer, Scaccia, and Stranczek deliberately used this contaminated well water in order to pump less Lake Michigan water into their supply and thus save $380,000 per year in municipal water costs. For a town of 11,000 people, that works out to a savings of $35 per capita per year.
This raises a fairly simple economic question, which we’ll repeat here in case you missed it up top: is having an extra 35 bucks in your pocket a reasonable trade-off for drinking water laced with carcinogenic dry cleaning solvents and their toxic by-products with well-documented links to cancer?
Speaking of cancer: IL Department of Public Health scientists took a careful look at cancer rates in the Village between 1996 and 2006 and, according to Hawthorne in 2010, found “higher-than-expected cases of kidney cancer in men, lung cancer in men and women, and gastrointestinal cancer in men” compared to Cook County as a whole and Illinois as a state. While not definitive proof that the tainted well water was the sole cause of these elevated disease rates, the IDPH Report (pdf of report and fact sheet) offers powerful evidence that these toxic exposures endangered the public health of Crestwood citizens, who were assured in their annual water reports from the Village that the water supply was clean, safe, and up to EPA standards of quality.
Mike Bryson edits the SUST at RU Blog and is its primary contributor since June 2012. His is director and co-founder of the Sustainability Studies undergraduate program at Roosevelt University in Chicago and Schaumburg. An Associate Professor of Humanities and Sustainability Studies at RU, Bryson’s courses include SUST 210 The Sustainable Future, 220 Water, 240 Waste, and 350 Service & Sustainability.