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the Chicago Tribune

Illinois Town Sued, Accused of Lying About Carcinogen-Filled Town Water

Illinois Sues Crestwood Over Contaminated Well

Michael Hawthorne

In Crestwood, Jerry Willman (left) and Ken Corkill of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency drill a hole for a well monitor at Playfield Park. (Tribune photo by David Pierini / June 7, 2009)

Already facing a federal criminal investigation, Crestwood Mayor Robert Stranczek and his father were sued in state court today and accused of repeatedly lying about their secret use of a community well contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals.

The civil lawsuit filed by Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan alleges the Stranczeks and their top water official collectively lied more than 120 times about Crestwood's polluted well, which they continued to use routinely even after the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency told the village in 1986 that it was contaminated with a chemical related to a dry cleaning solvent.

Madigan's 58-page complaint provides more details about actions first publicly revealed by the Tribune in April.

"Crestwood officials violated the public's trust and the laws designed to protect public health," Madigan said in a statement. "Through this lawsuit, we are seeking to hold these officials accountable for their conduct and to make sure that this does not happen again in Illinois."

Crestwood officials could face millions of dollars in fines; state law includes penalties of up to $50,000 per violation and $10,000 per day.

Stranczek and his father, Chester, who led Crestwood from 1969 to 2007, are accused of covering up their use of the community well, located under the village water tower off 127th Street. For more than two decades they told residents and state regulators that Crestwood relied exclusively on Lake Michigan water treated by Chicago and purchased from neighboring Alsip.

The well finally was shut off in late 2007, when the EPA tested the water for the first time since 1986. State officials found the well was contaminated with two chemicals, dichloroethylene and vinyl chloride, which is so toxic the U.S. EPA says there is no safe level of exposure.

Madigan named four defendants in the lawsuit filed this morning in Cook County Circuit Court: the village, both Stranczeks and Frank Scaccia, the certified operator in charge of Crestwood's water supply since 1988.

The lawsuit cites 105 monthly reports signed by Scaccia and sent to the Illinois EPA stating the community well was on "standby" and that no water had been pumped from it.

The Stranczeks, first Chester and later Robert, signed annual "consumer confidence reports" required under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Each of the reports, as well as notices they published in a local newsletter, claimed that all of the village's drinking water came from Lake Michigan.

It wasn't until August 2008 that Scaccia acknowledged he and other village officials had been using the well for years, according to the lawsuit. EPA inspectors questioned him after discovering the well water could be pumped, untreated, into the village's distribution system.

Nine days after the Tribune's investigation was published, Robert Stranczek and his lawyer gave Madigan's office a chart outlining how much water village officials had drawn from the well between 1985 and 2007. The monthly amount ranged from about 3 percent to as high as 20 percent of the village's total water supply.

In an April 24 interview with the Tribune, Stranczek acknowledged he has known about the use of the well since at least 1997, when he became a village trustee. He was appointed mayor in 2007 when his father retired.

"The leaders of this community, including my father who served four decades as mayor, have always put the safety and security of our residents first," Stranczek said in the interview.

Efforts to reach him for comment about the lawsuit were not immediately successful.

Crestwood officials knew the well was contaminated at least as early as 1986, records show. They also heard about the contamination in 1998, when village officials were on hand as contractors tested the well and found dichloroethylene in the water.

The contractors were investigating pollution from a dry cleaner less than 300 feet from the well, according to a letter found in state files. Perchloroethylene, a dry-cleaning solvent dumped years ago behind the business, breaks down into dichloroethylene and vinyl chloride.

Even though the EPA was informed of the contamination, it took nearly another decade for the agency to follow up. Meanwhile, village officials evaded several orders from another branch of the state agency to test the well for chemical contaminants.

In April 2000, when the EPA ordered Crestwood to test the well for toxic chemicals, Scaccia responded with a letter insisting they didn't need to conduct the tests because all of the village's water came from Lake Michigan. "This sampling would not apply to our facility," Scaccia wrote.

Madigan's lawsuit is the latest action prompted by the Tribune's investigation. Federal agents raided Crestwood government offices in late April as part of a criminal probe, and Gov. Pat Quinn ordered more stringent reporting requirements for all local water utilities.

State lawmakers also overwhelmingly approved legislation brokered by Quinn and Madigan to ensure citizens are informed when their drinking water is contaminated. On Monday, the EPA began testing soil and groundwater near the well in an attempt to determine how much pollution residents consumed over the years.

Still unanswered is whether the contaminated water might have contributed to any diseases or illnesses. Under pressure from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, an arm of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating.

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