City of Evanston officials, on Feb. 8, met with residents at the Levy Center about ongoing issues surrounding the quality of the water in the immediate vicinity of James Park.

Though the City maintains that the water is safe to drink, last May it sued Nicor and ComEd to compel the utilities to provide an accounting of old gas lines beneath James Park, which belonged to one of their corporate predecessors. Those lines, the suit said, led to the trace appearance of chemicals indicative of a hazardous viscous substance, coal tar, at various locations in the vicinity of the park. A federal judge last month gave the okay for the City’s suit to proceed.

That decision, said Ald. Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, means that the “Nicor and ComEd’s efforts to thwart the case are over. …They’ve never responded to any of our inquiries. They’ve never [even] said they have pipes over here. That means we’re going to be taking the initial steps to disclosure.”

The City’s legal team will now be able to put together “the link between the pipes and the coal tar,” Ms. Rainey added.

City Public Works Director Dave Stoneback described the latest round of water-testing that the City has recently undertaken. He said that 62 locations were tested and that trace amounts of chemical components from coal tar had been found in 18 of those spots. Two of the locations were away from the James Park vicinity, at the intersections of Main Street and Chicago Avenue as well as Emerson Street and Oak Avenue; only one of the components, phenanthrine, was found at those two locations.

“We’re uncertain as to where else those gas lines may have gone,” Mr. Stoneback said. “This is part of what we’re trying to learn through the lawsuit, so we can identify where they went, and see if other areas potentially have this same consequence.”

Mr. Stoneback nevertheless said that low concentrations were found in all 18 spots, noting that the amounts were so small the testing equipment could barely perceive them in some cases. The concentration-levels found in each round of testing, he added, have been consistent.

“The City feels that your water is perfectly safe to drink,” he said. “They’re at such low concentration that it is not considered to be a health hazard.”

Some at the meeting were skeptical, however, as to why the City was proceeding with an expensive lawsuit – it had spent some $500,000 on related litigation even before the May 2016 filing – if what was found is for all practical purposes benign. Deputy City Attorney Michelle Masoncup answered that the suit was to allow officials to nevertheless determine the origin and true extent of the contamination. The City asks for legal fees and punitive damages in the suit.

“Our point is that it has the potential to affect the safety of your water, so we need to address it now, before it actually becomes an imminent threat,” said Ms. Masoncup.

Officials were also asked about the Smylie Brothers location slated to go in on the site of the now-shuttered recycling center on the periphery of James Park. Ald. Rainey said the City made provisions for a worst-case scenario, inserting a clause in Smylie Brothers’ lease absolving the City of liability should further issues arise involving the contamination.

Smylie Brothers has “a very, very impressive legal team,” Ald. Rainey added. “They will continue testing their water every month. …They are a model of support and confidence for the City of Evanston.”

Mr. Stoneback said that, to assuage residents’ concerns about the coal tar, the City would this spring dig on the Kirk Street and Mulford Street connections at Dodge Avenue to investigate the extent, if any, encrustment can be found. They will continue to investigate in 10-foot increments as necessary, until the encrustment seems to subside. The water main on Dodge Avenue, from Mulford Street south to Howard Street will also be replaced, he added.

“There is a belief that the gas line continued down to Howard Street, so we’re going to want to make sure that we replace that water main,” Mr. Stoneback explained.

Officials were asked about the possibilities of lead contamination. Mr. Stoneback answered that tests for lead-levels were not being performed at the same time as the coal tar-related tests. He did note, however, that Evanston’s lead-levels are regularly tested and are consistently low.

Mr. Stoneback also mentioned that he plans to approach the City Council about a program that would provide homeowners with an interest-free loan, to be paid off on the resident’s water bill, to help cover the cost of replacing lead pipes from their home to their parkway.

Fire Chief Brian Scott spoke about trapped methane beneath James Park, saying it poses no health or safety hazard.

“We’ve had no issues whatsoever with this trapped methane under James Park,” he said. “We’ve installed permanent methane detectors in both [the Levy Center] and in Dawes School and since that time, we’ve had zero-activation of those detectors. … Methane has a vapor-density that is lighter than air, so in any gas that would escape in the natural atmosphere of James Park poses no public-safety hazard as well.”