Ann Muniz would like to forget the days of drinking bottled water and taking short showers with the windows open. Health officials suggested taking those unusual steps eight years ago when they told Muniz and nearly 750 other homeowners in an unincorporated area near Downers Grove that their private wells were contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals.
In an ordeal similar to what Crestwood residents are now experiencing, the state had known years earlier about toxic pollution seeping into the water supply but didn't notify residents at the time.The lack of action in Muniz's neighborhood prompted the Illinois legislature in 2005 to unanimously approve a right-to-know law that requires state officials to notify people if they live near a polluted site or if their tap water is contaminated.
Gov. Pat Quinn and legislative leaders are vowing to fix an apparent weakness in the law, which they hailed as a national model four years ago.
"It's very frustrating to know this is still happening," said Muniz, who drove to Springfield three times to tell lawmakers her story. "I know their pain and anger."
When public water supplies are fouled by toxic pollutants, the law requires that municipal officials, not residents, be notified. But village officials already knew their municipal well was contaminated -- state officials had told them so in 1986 -- and continued to use it anyway.
In response to the Tribune's investigation, Quinn and others vowed last week to ensure that state and local officials follow through on the intent of the law. They also are moving to make it a felony to mislead the public about the source of its water.
"You would expect them to tell their constituents what's in the water they're drinking," said Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), who sponsored the right-to-know measure. "If we need to amend the law to make it clear people should be notified, that's what we'll do."
After the law took effect, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency posted on its Web site examples of state officials issuing notifications or requiring polluters to do so. Under the heading "right-to-know legislation better informs Illinois citizens," the site notes that early notification can help people "make important decisions that may impact their families' health."
One case the EPA highlighted involved radioactive tritium that had seeped into groundwater near the Braidwood nuclear power plant in Will County. The Tribune first reported in January 2006 that Exelon Nuclear had bought out a homeowner and offered to compensate others for any loss in home value because of the contamination.
On at least a half-dozen occasions after that, Exelon and state officials sent notices to people living near the plant updating them on plans to clean up the area.
"We moved fairly quickly on that one," said Kurt Neibergall, manager of the EPA's Office of Community Relations. "In many of these cases, we maybe don't have all of the answers, but we can get as much information as possible out there."
Answers were difficult to find for Muniz and her neighbors in unincorporated Downers Grove. After they were told in 2001 that their wells were contaminated with trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene, two industrial solvents linked to cancer, they were advised by state health officials to avoid drinking tap water and to limit bathing in it.
If they needed to take a shower, Muniz said, they were told to open the windows because the chemicals can easily become airborne when aerated.
The neighborhood later was hooked up to treated Lake Michigan water and the wells were capped. But as the saga dragged on, it became clear that state and local officials had known about the contamination in the late 1980s and didn't inform people living nearby.
"They always seemed to be looking for loopholes or excuses for not telling us what's going on," Muniz said.
When the right-to-know legislation was signed into law in 2005, state officials vowed that what happened to Muniz and her neighbors wouldn't happen again.
In Crestwood, village officials told state regulators in 1986 that they would use only treated Lake Michigan water from neighboring Alsip and the contaminated well would be turned on only in an emergency. But records show that Crestwood relied on well water for up to 20 percent of the village's water supply for some months.
The well finally was shut off after the EPA tested the water again in 2007 and found it still was contaminated with chemicals related to perchloroethylene. But before the Tribune report, the only public hint of contaminated water in the area was an Aug. 13 news release from the Illinois Department of Public Health warning that private wells in the area might be polluted.
State officials now say they are taking steps to avoid a repeat of what happened in Crestwood.
"We think what these guys did is outrageous," said Doug Scott, director of the state EPA. "It can't be allowed to ever happen again."