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City officials updated Evanston residents on developments around environmental issues in James Park – specifically the discovery of trace amounts of contaminants in the neighborhood’s water supply – at a meeting at Dawes Elementary School on Sept. 1.

The City of Evanston has filed a federal lawsuit against utilities Nicor and ComEd, maintaining that contaminants, which they said likely emanated from abandoned gas lines beneath the park, have resulted in trace amounts of coal tar – a dark, viscous liquid that is a by-product of coal carbonization – in the area’s water supply. The City maintains that the amount of coal tar found in samples has been minute and non-threatening, but officials hope the lawsuit can compel the utilities to produce details of the gas mains, which they inherited from a now-demolished gas plant at Oakton and McCormick.

The utilities countered with a motion to dismiss the suit; the City answered that motion on Sept. 1.

“My main goal is to tell you that the water is safe,” said Public Works Director Dave Stoneback, who added that the amounts were well below limits established by environmental regulators at both the state and federal levels. In previous meetings on the matter, officials have said that, because such small amounts were found, they have been unable to establish any dialogue with environmental protection agencies.

“Everything is inconclusive,” Mr. Stoneback said. “… But I want to stress that is in such low concentrations that is not a health threat to you.”

Mr. Stoneback added that the issue had not been examined previously because technology to reveal these contaminants in such small amounts was only recently invented. The same tests performed 10 years ago would have produced a “non-detect,” he said.

When asked whether conventional charcoal water filters – such as those in a Brita pitcher – would eliminate the pollutants from a home tap, Darrell King, water production bureau chief, said that they would. Eighth Ward Alderman Ann Rainey said that she would ask the City Council to approve a measure to provide filters for neighborhood residents.

Audience members were nevertheless concerned about the presence of coal tar; several pointed out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had listed its components as carcinogens.

“They are fat-soluble, meaning they build up in your body,” said one audience member. “You don’t clear them over time, which is why the CDC has said that there isn’t really a safe level. They don’t agree with the Illinois EPA. … I guess I’m concerned that the City’s not taking it more seriously and looking at what you’re going to do for more testing and [determining] what you’re going to do in the meantime.”

Mr. Stoneback replied, “The CDC says what it says. I don’t have that information in front of me, so I’ll take your word for that. The level of testing that will continue will be determined by the City Council. We report the samples to the City Council in September sometime, and the staff will direct how to proceed. The City is taking this pretty seriously, plus we have the lawsuit that we have against the ‘children’ of the parent company that we believe started this situation.”

Others questioned the lack of engagement between the City and environmental regulators, and asked whether the City Evanston had petitioned to have the area declared a superfund site. Mr. Stoneback said that it had not.

Officials have now done three rounds of testing in various locations. In the most recent round, small amounts of contaminants were discovered in five of 15 locations: Dobson Plaza Nursing Home, Dawes School, a hydrant on the 1900 block of Dobson Street, and private residences on the 200 block of Brown Avenue and the 300 block of Darrow Avenue.

The City will now test water quality in homes on request. Concerned residents should contact the City through its 311 number or website.

Information on the progress of the lawsuit, as well as background on the water quality situation, is at http://www.cityofevanston.org/parks-recreation/parks/james-park-testing/.