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State EPA: Sauk Village well filters will be in place by next week

U.S. Environmental Protection AgencyEnvironmental PoliticsCancerDennis Sullivan

The interim director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency drew applause from residents in far south suburban Sauk Village Wednesday evening as he explained why his agency was immediately placing temporary filtering equipment on the two functioning municipal wells instead of waiting four to five weeks for the village to do it.

"We just felt that was too long a time," John Kim told the approximately 425 people at a public meeting held at Bloom Trail High School in Steger.

Last week the IEPA warned residents that vinyl chloride levels in their drinking water had reached levels high enough to require the town take action and alert users.

The air-stripping system, expected to be in place next week, is capable of reducing the level of vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, to nearly non-existent, he said.

But Kim and Illinois Department of Public Health Director LaMar Hasbrouck, heading a panel of state environmental health leaders and experts, had a tougher time explaining how the level of vinyl chloride could be unsafe one day, safe the next, and then unsafe again.

Vinyl chloride is an odorless, colorless and tasteless compound used to make certain plastic and vinyl products. Federal officials say there is no safe level of exposure to it. 

Hasbrouck told the residents prolonged exposure to high levels of vinyl chloride has been linked to decreased immunity, liver problems and certain kinds of cancer. But he was quick to define the time period as "something like 70 years."

He likened the maximum exposure level for vinyl chloride -- two parts per billion -- set by the federal government to an eyedropper in a 50,000-gallon swimming pool.

Kim said the level in Sauk Village wells, at 1.68 parts per billion, remains below the federal level. But the state requires notification of customers when the level reaches 1 part per billion in an early-warning system somewhat like warning residents when a tornado has been sighted.

"I apologize if you've been getting mixed messages," he said. "We're trying to head off the problem."

Marcia Willhite, IEPA Public Water Supplies Bureau Chief, defended an earlier rejection of Sauk Village's loan application to cover the cost of obtaining Lake Michigan water.

Willhite said the cost estimates "made sense to us, based on our experience." But Sauk Village water bills, averaging $108-a-month, couldn't cover the loan cost. "It seemed pretty unaffordable to us," she said.

And the number of Sauk Village water customers has continued to decline, according to information provided by the village that shows 602 shut-offs between July 2011 and June 2012.

In the meantime, the IEPA has required Sauk Village to provide residents with bottled water as an alternative to municipal water.

Not everyone is pleased with the stopgap approach.

"It's humiliating," said James Witherspoon, a veteran who recalls providing water to the Vietnamese in 1965 as a goodwill gesture.

"Now I'm at the other end of the situation."

chicagobreaking@tribune.com

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U.S. Environmental Protection AgencyEnvironmental PoliticsCancerDennis Sullivan
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