KANKAKEE — The state is suing a Kankakee-based water company for allegedly failing to provide safe drinking water to a Will County town.
The target of the lawsuit is Aqua Illinois, which is the water company for much of Kankakee County.
Last week, the attorney general’s office and the Will County state’s attorney’s office filed the lawsuit against Aqua because of elevated lead levels in University Park’s drinking water.
In 2017, the company started providing water from the Kankakee River before getting a state permit to do so, the lawsuit alleges.
Officials are labeling the problem an “environmental justice concern” because of a large minority population in University Park, which is 30 miles north of Kankakee. Nearly 90 percent of the town of 7,000 is comprised of African American residents.
“All Illinois residents, regardless of their ZIP code, deserve clean, safe drinking water,” Attorney General Kwame Raoul said in a news release. “We have seen the damage that has been done in environmental justice communities in other states when contaminated drinking water is not addressed immediately.”
Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow said vulnerable towns, such as University Park, bear a “disproportionate burden” of environmental impacts.
“In addition to the burdensome inconvenience caused by the interruption in the water supply, there is a pallor of uncertainty that hangs over these consumers as to the extent of the harm this lead contamination has already caused and what might lie ahead,” Glasgow said in the release.
In a statement Monday, Craig Blanchette, Aqua Illinois’ president, said the state and county offices filed the lawsuit, as expected, in response to regulatory violations issued last month by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency related to permitting and sampling rules.
“While we are still reviewing the filing, we do not believe the issues associated with these regulatory violations contributed to or worsened the situation in University Park, and we will continue to work with the IEPA, attorney general and state’s attorney to resolve the complaint. It is also important to note that Aqua Illinois has proactively worked with the IEPA to identify and rectify each of these violations, having corrected some of these matters back in 2018,” Blanchette said.
CDC: NO SAFE LEVEL
In 2017, Aqua switched the source of the village’s water from wells to the Kankakee River. After changing the water source, Aqua was required to conduct testing every six months, according to the attorney general’s office. The state alleges the company changed to river water before getting an operating permit from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
In response, Blanchette said in the statement, “As part of our holistic examination of the matter, Aqua Illinois has been and will continue to evaluate changes to processes and personnel to enhance our permit tracking system and sampling protocols as we continue to improve our service for our customers and communities.”
After the switch to the Kankakee River, residents complained about the water’s taste, and, in response, the company added a blended phosphate mix to the system, according to the state. The change in the water chemistry caused a chemical reaction that removed a protective layer in residential plumbing, the state said.
Aqua disagreed with the timeline provided by the attorney general.
"To address concerns from customers about water hardness and discoloration caused by iron levels, Aqua Illinois began a new treatment process that included adding a blended phosphate, widely known to remove iron and rust and protect against lead, and later transitioned service to Kankakee River water from well water," the company said in a statement. "Aqua Illinois changed the water treatment before switching the water source, and initiated the switch in the water source to address concerns about water discoloration, not taste."
In May, Aqua reported elevated lead levels to the Illinois EPA and later issued a warning to residents not to drink the water, the office said.
In August, 27 of 60 samples collected from customers contained lead above legally allowable levels, according to the state. In response, Aqua Illinois has been providing bottled water, pitchers with filters and faucet filters to affected residents.
There is no safe level of lead in drinking water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure, possibly leading to lifelong health problems, including irreversible brain damage.
The attorney general’s office is seeking civil penalties and a preliminary injunction to require Aqua to act immediately to correct the situation.
‘PROTECTIVE AS POSSIBLE’
Despite the litigation, the state’s news release said Aqua has been working closely with regulatory agencies on the problem. Aqua also has held public meetings with residents and created a new website to update residents (waterfactsil.com).
On June 14, Aqua issued a voluntary do-not-consume advisory for all customers “to be as protective as possible.” It was a day after the firm received samples that showed elevated lead levels in 14 homes, according to the company’s website.
“It is important to note that no state or federal regulation required us to issue the advisory and that we issued it as a precaution to protect the public until we learned more about the extent, cause and level of the issue and until we could implement alternative protective health measures,” the website says in its Aug. 12 update.
The company says it has identified the likely cause of the elevated lead levels as the water chemistry interacting with lead solder in customers’ internal plumbing.
“Our information shows that the water in Aqua Illinois’ distribution system and infrastructure does not have elevated levels of lead,” Aqua said. "Given that the exact cause is still under investigation and likely will be for some time, we cannot definitively say whether or not the blended phosphate caused the change in water chemistry that contributed to this lead issue."
Aqua noted the U.S. EPA banned lead solder in 1986 and that testing in post-1990 homes has shown lead levels met requirements. The company has removed some areas from the advisory based on property age and water sample results. It’s unclear how many homes remain affected by the advisory.
Aqua Illinois is a subsidiary of Pennsylvania-based Aqua America and runs water systems in eight states.
In Kankakee County, Aqua is the water utility for Kankakee, Aroma Park, Bourbonnais, Bradley, Manteno, Grant Park, Limestone, Sun River Terrace and the rural parts of some townships.