Water Quality in Chicago and Schaumburg

Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emanuel claims that the city “has earned the reputation for the best drinking water in the world.” But how clean and safe is that water supply? The answer is far from simple, and depends both on where you live and how water quality is assessed.

Chicago and many of its suburbs — including Schaumburg — draw water from Lake Michigan, clean and purify it through chemical and physical processes at one of several water treatment plants (such as the massive Jardine facility just north of Navy Pier in downtown), and send it to residents, businesses, and industries through a complex system of water mains and distribution pipes — some of which are more than a century old. Other suburban and exurban communities get their fresh water from underground wells, which can be shallow or deep. Still others supplement their well water systems with a purchased supply from Lake Michigan.

A revealing series of articles this month by the Chicago Tribune‘s environmental reporter, Michael Hawthorne, details recent developments in the Crestwood, IL, water scandal as well as new scientific findings about the Chicago region’s water quality level. In Crestwood, a relatively small south suburb once renowned for its extremely low tax rates and supposedly excellent water supply, federal officials filed indictments against two former town officials for knowingly tainting the village’s water supply with contaminated well water. For over two decades, from 1986 to 2007, Crestwood purposefully supplemented its supply of Lake Michigan water purchased from neighboring suburb Alsip with well water that was definitively “contaminated with vinyl chloride and dichloroethylene, toxic chemicals related to the dry-cleaning solvent perchloroethylene, or perc.” Despite the fact that the Illinois EPA ordered Crestwood in 1986 to shut down the well because of the known toxicity of these chemicals, the village continued to pump contaminant-laced water to its residents in order to keep its Lake Michigan water bills artificially low and avoid spending money to upgrade its leaky water distribution infrastructure.

In an harrowingly textbook case of violating the public trust, Crestwood officials throughout the twenty-plus year contamination period assured the public in writing that its water supply was completely safe and, most importantly to the village’s pols, highly affordable. This conveniently overlooked the fact that at times up to 20 percent of the Village’s drinking water was coming from the contaminated well. Besides the technical challenge of determining the risk level to residents of drinking vinyl chloride-laced water, the case raises important issues of ethics and accountability. Tribune investigations reveal that former mayor Chester Stranczek signed off on Crestwood’s water quality reports for many years, and that his son, Robert Stranczek, knew about the well’s use from as long ago as 1997. The elder Stranczek was mayor for nearly four decades until his retirement in 2007, when Robert took the reins. Curiously, neither is named in the just-released federal indictment against the Village of Crestwood.

While the Crestwood controversy paints a stark contrast between polluted well water and pristine Lake Michigan water, the long-vaunted quality of Chicago’s water supply has also come into question with the publication of several reports on the presence of lead, hexavalent chromium, antibiotics, and other contaminants in the drinking water of area residents. The technical and regulatory challenges here are diverse and multidimensional.  Problems with lead, a serious and long-recognized health hazard, are traceable to aging water distribution systems, which include lead water mains and solder in the joints of smaller pipelines. These can leach lead into the otherwise clean water — but measuring contamination levels greatly depends on assessment techniques (such as how much water is flushed from a resident’s water lines before taking a water sample), which in turn makes getting systematic data problematic.

Then there’s hexavalent chromium, the toxic substance made infamous by California environmental activist Erin Brockovich. While California recently passed legislation regulating a safe level of chromium at 0.02 parts per billion (here defined as “an amount that reduces the risk of developing cancer to a point considered negligible by most scientists and physicians,” no similar federal standard exists. Chicago’s level of detected chromium exceeds California’s standards by more than 11 times, so it’s not a surprise that it and other cities advocate that a higher threshold eventually be adopted. This ongoing debate between federal environmental officials, who are studying the problem, and water supply managers in America’s cities will largely be dictated by compliance costs and local politics as much, if not more so, than legitimate concerns about protecting public health.

Hexavalent chromium, though, is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unregulated and untested substances and contaminants in our fresh water supply, since literally thousands of synthetic substances have been released into the environment over the past several decades and over only a small fraction of these are subject to testing and regulation. As the Tribune‘s Michael Hawthorne reported on 6 August 2011,

Trace amounts of sex hormones, prescription drugs, flame retardants and herbicides are being detected in treated drinking water pumped to more than 7 million people in Chicago and its suburbs.

In the latest round of testing prompted by a 2008 Tribune investigation, city officials discovered that more than two dozen pharmaceutical drugs and other unregulated chemicals pass through Chicago’s massive treatment plants.

Little is known about potential health effects from drinking drug-contaminated water, but scientists and regulators increasingly are concerned about long-term exposure, even at very low levels.     

Questions about pollution, its testing and regulation, the need for progressive water quality policy, and other water sustainability issues are addressed in SUST 220 Water, a core course in Roosevelt University’s Sustainability Studies program. Professor Mike Bryson is offering SUST 220 as a weekend/hybrid course at RU’s Schaumburg Campus this fall, with scheduled field trips to the North Branch of the Chicago River, the Des Plaines River Wetland Demonstration Project, and other sites. Other SUST offerings for Fall 2011 taught online and at the Chicago Campus can be previewed here.

If you are interested in taking courses this fall, please contact your RU academic advisor for registration details and consultations on financial aid options. Registration for this semester is ongoing. If you are not currently a Roosevelt University student, you can investigate our degree options, and our course listings. For more information, please visit our Sustainability Studies website, call 1-877-277-5978 (1-877-APPLY RU) or email applyRU@roosevelt.edu.

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About Suburban Sustainability

Founder and editor of the Schaumburg's Sustainability Future social media project (est. Earth Day, 2011)
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