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The City of Evanston followed through on its official threat to sue Nicor Gas and ComEd for natural gas trapped under James Park and surrounding areas. The action came in the form of a counterclaim filed Feb. 2 in response to Nicor’s lawsuit against the City. The Nicor suit sought a judicial declaration that the trapped gas was not Nicor’s responsibility.

Methane, the gas at issue, is not generally dangerous to humans. Only if the gas builds up in an enclosed space and is ignited, or pushes all the oxygen out, will methane become harmful to humans, according to government environmental publications.  Nevertheless, the City’s Notice of Intent to Sue, and counterclaim, allege the pressurized gas in close proximity to Dawes Elementary School and the Levy Center presents “an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health or the environment…” (according to the City’s Notice of Intent to Sue, dated Oct. 23, 2014).

The litigation, proceeding in federal district court for the Northern District of Illinois, promises to be a battle of the experts. Already, at least four experts have analyzed the trapped gas and come to wildly different conclusions as to its origin.

In late 2012, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRDGC) engaged an expert to sample soil beneath its water plant on McCormick in Skokie, just across the North Shore Channel from James Park. At that time, the expert concluded that the gas in question was landfill gas generated by the Mt. Trashmore landfill. The City ceased operating the James Park landfill in the 1960s.

The City, in response to MWRDGC’s report, hired its own expert, CS Geologic. CS Geologic concluded that the gas was not landfill gas but instead naturally occurring petroleum formed in the “Silurian dolomite” and “Niagaran dolomite.” Both experts noted the absence of the odorous marker that is added to marketed natural gas in concluding the gas was not from underground gas pipes.

In early 2014, the City ordered additional CS Geologic testing at a cost of more than $58,000. The expanded study noted pressurized gas in several locations and recommended a controlled burn of the gas using rented equipment. The cost of burning the gas was difficult to ascertain because of a lack of complete understanding of the amount of gas.

The City decided to pursue a claim for contribution from Nicor rather than burn off the gas, and engaged the lawfirm of Jeep & Blazer, environmental law experts, to spearhead the effort. Jeep & Blazer hired its own expert to conduct yet another analysis of the James Park gas. The City of  Evanston paid the new consultant at least $106,000.

SCS Engineers, Jeep & Blazer’s expert, issued a 425-page report on Jan. 30 that concluded, “It is SCS’s opinion that two sources remain viable potential sources of the petroleum and gas found… around James Park … leakage from existing and abandoned natural gas pipelines in the vicinity of James Park [or] Leakage of petroleum materials from the operational facilities at … the former Skokie MGP.”

The “Skokie MGP” was a natural gas manufacturing facility closed in the 1950s located across the canal in Skokie. SCS determined that “Lowe Process gas.” 

Further, Jeep & Blazer, based on the SCS report, completely discounted the City’s first consultant, saying in its answer to the Nicor Complaint, “the only reference provided by CSG[eologic] to document the purported liquid-phase petroleum was an 1866 document [in which] the boring location for this well was selected during a séance with a spiritual medium.”

At no point in the SCS report does the Jeep & Blazer consultant indicate how to mitigate the purported natural gas problem. Nowhere in the City’s court filings is any reference made to solving the alleged problem. The gas remains where it is for now, causing no problems, according to Fire Chief Greg Klaiber, as long as it remains underground.

The federal lawsuit continues, and the City continues to build up consultant fees as a result.  ComEd was added to the lawsuit, because in the late 1950s Nicor split off from the larger company. The companies split liability for anything relating to the decommissioned Skokie manufacturing plant. Both companies will file their responses to the City’s Answer and Counterclaim in the coming weeks.