Evanston will provide additional locations and higher frequency of water testing in the months ahead, according to officials speaking at a June 16 meeting at the Levy Center about a federal lawsuit that the City recently filed against ComEd and Nicor.

The May 31 suit, filed in the Northern District Court of Illinois, alleges that contaminants from old gas lines now belonging to the utility companies penetrated water mains along Dodge Avenue and threatened the drinking water supply in parts of the southwest corner of Evanston.

The City maintains that only small, benign levels of contaminants were present in the samples they took – so small, they say, that federal and state environmental agencies have been slow to address the issue – but it is suing to compel Nicor and ComEd to provide a detailed accounting of the lines, which are located beneath James Park. Neither utility, City officials say, has offered a significant response to the suit.

“They continue to give us the runaround in court,” said Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar at the meeting. He was joined by consultant Dave Hendron, Senior Project Manager for SCS Engineers, which has tested the water; attorney Jeff Jeep, who is representing the City in federal court; and City Water Production Bureau Chief Darrell King. Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, and Alderman Ann Rainey also attended.

Attendees at the meeting, including Ald. Rainey, asked that the City undergo water testing in residential sites in the area. Mr. King said that a number of sites, most in commercial and public spaces, were tested regularly.

“There’s a concern from those of us who are drinking this water, day in and day out, that it’s a different chemical mix from other people in town. We need to be reassured by some regular testing over the next month, and the month after that, at different places, so we can be reassured that these levels stay below what is required to be reported to the [Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and federal Environmental Protection Agency],” Ald. Rainey said.

Mr. Bobkiewicz had attended another water quality meeting that evening, and said that many residents had conveyed concerns about lead, and that the City would commit to the testing requested.

“Because we are so far below the [IEPA requirements for testing] on lead, we test less often for lead than other communities in Illinois,” he added. “Mayor Tisdahl has asked, and I have agreed, that we are going to be testing, in all nine wards. … We are now going to have at least two locations in each ward, so there are going to be at least 18 additional locations.”

“It doesn’t cost much at all,” added Mayor Tisdahl.

Mr. Bobkiewicz added, “Not at all. We have a laboratory here and we can send the water out. None of you would be surprised to find out that this is growth industry. …We are committed. We will confer with Alderman Rainey about the exact parameters that we’re looking at, and we’ll come up with a regular schedule.” 

The May 31 suit is a refiling of a previous suit that had been dismissed in February. According to a June 6 City of Evanston statement, the new filing included results from an independent testing laboratory – which the City received the same day the first lawsuit was dismissed – that confirmed the presence of materials associated with “coal tar” found on City water mains along Dodge Avenue.

“In 2014 and the summer of 2015, the City found a black crust on the outside of a 24” Pipe and the Dodge Avenue Water Line,” said the statement. “The black crust on the Water Line and 24” Pipe have the same ‘chemical fingerprint’–that is, the black crust on both pipes contain the same chemicals. The black crust on both pipes also matches the ‘coal tar’ found at the Skokie Manufactured Gas Plant Site (Skokie MGP) located at Oakton Street and McCormick [Boulevard]. Nicor and ComEd are the corporate successors to Northwestern Gas Light & Coke Company, which operated manufactured gas plants, and associated pipelines, in the City of Evanston from approximately 1871 until 1950.”

The contaminants in question are fluoranthene and phenanthrene, according to the lawsuit.

“What we’re trying to do is be very proactive and very responsible and hopefully and helpfully represent the citizen’s interests,” said Mr. Farrar, who added that he had been “cautiously optimistic” that ComEd and Nicor representatives would attend the meeting that night. “But they’re not here, and they’re not here like they haven’t been here for two years.”

When City workers found substances surrounding its water pipes and in the ground at James Park, “We reached out to these folks. This is all operations from what was called a manufactured gas plant that ceased operation sometime in the 1950s. We said, ‘It’s your infrastructure, pipes [and] the remnants of your operations. The City had nothing to do with it.’ …What did they do? They stonewalled us.”

According to Mr. Farrar, the lawsuit boils down to finding out where the pipes emanating from the plant are located in James Park. “They won’t even tell us that,” he added. The suit also seeks relief for leaked natural gas.

Evanston RoundTable asked ComEd and Nicor for comment on the suit and the City’s allegations. “We take our environmental responsibilities very seriously,” said Alejandro Bodipo-Memba, a ComEd spokesman, in a statement the company had previously released to other media outlets. “We value our relationship with the City of Evanston and have committed significant funds to remediating sites in the area. While we are committed to continuing our work, this is a filing of a previously dismissed lawsuit and offers no sound environmental data to support the claim. We will continue to engage the City of Evanston on these issues.”   

Representatives from Nicor did not reply in time for the RoundTable‘s deadline.