Mayor: ‘Affluent, white suburb’ would have fix
1,500 customers in University Park continue to have lead-contaminated water after 16 months
“It’s one of those things you just take for granted is your water, and I can’t anymore.” — Phyllis Saunders, University Park resident
With 1,500 University Park customers still threatened by potentially high lead levels in their water, local officials demanded action this weekend, saying the problem would have been resolved if itwas happening in “an affluent, white suburb.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson also joined the fight, speaking out at the Saturday town hall event and calling for more attention on University Park’s plight.
“If your neighbor’s house is on fire, you don’t need an invitation to come put out the fire — because you care, because you support them,” Jackson said.
Residents of University Park have “played by the rules” and became property owners, he said. But they still cannot get clean water.
“Something about that’s not right,” he said.
His comments came during the two-hour event featuring members of the Village Board as well as other local, state and federal officials. It was designed to provide a State of the Village update and give residents an opportunity to submit written questions. While the town hall covered a breadth of topics, the water issue was a constant refrain for officials, who say they want to see more urgency in solving this issue.
“My position on behalf of the residents has been consistent and clear: If University Park were an affluent, white suburb, instead of an African-American one, our water would not still be leadcontaminated after 16 months,” University Park Mayor Joseph Roudez said.
Aqua Illinois notified customers in June 2019 that elevated lead levels had been detected in samples taken from some of their homes. The company reportedly detected elevated lead levels at 14
village properties shortly after changing its treatment process. Aqua issued a “do not consume” advisory for roughly 2,400 customers at that time.
In mid-August of 2019, the IllinoisAttorney General’s Office and Will County State’s Attorney’s Office filed a lawsuit against Aqua Illinois, alleging the company failed to provide a safe water supply in University Park. The Attorney General said Aqua switched its water supply to the Kankakee River and began adding a blended phosphate mix to the public water system to help with the taste. But that was thought to have caused a chemical reaction that removed a protective layer in residential plumbing, which allowed lead to leach into thewater of homes and businesses. The lawsuit sought immediate action from the company, in addition to civil penalties.
Tori Joseph, deputy press secretary for the Illinois Attorney General, said the latest update in the legal proceedings has been amotion by the attorney general last month to strike affirmative defenses posed by Aqua. The attorney general’s office is continuing to demand “assuredly safe” water for University Park residents and has argued that is not impossible.
“We continue to receive monthly reports from Aqua,” Joseph said. “Our top priority is ensuring that residentshave access tosafe drinkingwater.”
Aqua responded to that motion in mid-September, arguing the lead is not within its infrastructure but internal pipes owned by impacted residents. The company said the situation involves a unique set of circumstances. The next hearing regarding that motion is slated for Oct. 14.
Aqua has been providing bottledwater, pitchers with filters, and faucet filters to the impacted residents. But Roudez said there are roughly 1,500 customers in University Park who are under awater advisory.
“It saddens me to think that, 15 months later, we’re still fighting this uphill battle with Aqua Illinois,” Trustee Donzell Franklin said. “I’m willing to take it a
step farther and say, if the animals at Brookfield Zoo were exposed to the levels of lead that some of our village residents have been exposed to, there would be more of an urgency. There would be more federal support, state support to make sure this is rectified.”
University Park is located in an area that has been designated by the IllinoisEnvironmental Protection Agency as an area of environmental justice concern because its percentage of low-income and/or minority residents is twice the state average, according to the Attorney General’s office.
Roudez demanded a list of concessions from Aqua, in addition to providing clean water for residents, including an endowment fund for unforeseen consequences caused by the contaminated water. Roudez said parents mixed this water with baby formula and families gave it to their children without knowing itwas contaminated.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes there is no safe level of lead in drinking water for children.
“I would suggest you waste no more time, and spend whatever dollars are necessary to correct this gross violation of your company’s public trust as a necessary utility provider,” Roudez said. “No confidentiality agreements, no sweeping offenses under the rug, no deals — Aqua Water is going to pay for what they’ve done. On that, you havemyword.”
Meredith Krantz, a spokesperson for Aqua Illinois, said by email Sunday that the company has made significant progress, restoring “high water quality” to 89% of the homes regularly sampled. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard is 90 %.
The company also notes the water under this advisory is OK to drink when residents run their cold tap water for 2 to 3 minutes, and filter cold tap water through a faucet or pitcher filter certified to remove lead. Aqua reportedly has provided more than 5,494 pitcher and faucet filters, and another 6,431 filter replacements in University Park.
Krantzurged residents to regularly use their tap wa
ter as the compan yworks to restore a protective lining to internal pipes. But Roudez remains reluctant to ask residents to do that, and said they are incurring higher sewage bills than usual as a result. Krantz said this is not the case, as those rates have been capped based on pre-advisory usage.
Krantz said that being under advisory does not necessarily mean all 1,500 of those homes have been impacted by elevated levels of lead. Some were built after 1990 and should not legally have lead solder in the internal plumbing, she said. Other homes have tested below the EPA standard of 15 parts per billion, she said.
Krantz said that Aqua has offered all University Park customers, free of charge, comprehensive home lead and blood lead level testing.
But there is no concrete timeline on when standards will be met for all of University Park, Krantz said.
“The national regulatory process for addressing elevated levels of lead is detailed and requires a number of steps that take time,”
she said. “Consistent with these regulations, we are doing everything we can to achieve the solution for the select customers who remain impacted.”
She did not immediately have numbers available regarding how many residents under advisory have been complying with Aqua’s request to use their tap water throughout the process.
“We are doing everything we can to achieve a solution for those who remain impacted, and all data indicates that our treatment is working effectively,” she wrote. “Through our coordinated response, we are constantly monitoring the treatment, and have more than doubled our sampling pool— analyzing more than 4,500 water samples through our monthly program — and we continue to provide in-home visits to clean and analyze faucet and plumbing fixtures.”
Krantz said the company is trying to keep an open line of communication with officials and residents. She said Aqua was not specifically invited to the open, public meeting but provided University Park’s officials with the latest information before it. She said Aqua has been updating customers directly, as well, atwaterfactsil.com.
“The health and safety of our customers are at the heart of everything we do, and nothing is more important tous than achieving the long-term solution for impacted customers,” Krantz said in the emailed statement. “As we continue working with national experts and customers under regulatory guidance to restore the best quality of water for impacted University Park residents, we will continue providing information and resources to be a good community partner.”
But residents who attended the town hall said they are tired of waiting. They want less talk and more solutions.
Phyllis Saunders, of University Park, during the town hall held a sign reading, “Forget the Kool-Aid. Don’t drink the U.P. Water!”
Saunders said she bought an office-style water dispenser for her home because she still does not trust her tapwater.
“It’s one of those things you just take for granted is your water, and I can’t anymore,” Saunders said. “The only thing that helps me is they’re still giving me some water.”
Pat Cooper, who lives in University Park’s Thornwood House Apartments, also held a sign demanding clean water at home rather than through bottles, asking when water would be clear again. Cooper said she is still without what she considers drinkable water from her tap.
“I’ve got my feelings about the water company, believe me,” Cooper said. “I’ve got lead inmy blood. It was not an additive I needed.”
Donna Dilworth, of University Park, said she attended the meeting for a variety of reasons, from beautification to transparency to finance. The water issue was among her interests, and she said she worried what residents heard at the town hall was just more talk.
“We’ll see what happens … but we’ve heard it before,” Dilworth said.
Phyllis Saunders, of University Park, holds a sign addressing the water contamination issues in her village.
Pat Cooper, a resident of University Park’s Thornwood House Apartments, said she is still without tap water she considers drinkable.
University Park Mayor Joseph Roudez opened his remarks at a weekend town hall with comments directed toward his village’s continuing issues with lead-contaminated water.