Evanston residents demand water main replacement

Nora Shelly, City Editor

A petition signed by more than 150 residents requested the city replace all water main lines that contain traces of coal tar in southwest Evanston.

Members of the group James Park Neighbors presented the petition to City Council on Monday night. The group was formed to address concerns citizens have about two compounds found in water in the area, phenanthrene and fluoranthene. The city believes the materials, which are not harmful at the levels found in Evanston, were brought to the area by gas lines last used in the mid-20th century.

City staff refiled a lawsuit in May against ComEd, an electric utility company, and Nicor, a natural gas distributor, for the materials after an independent testing laboratory confirmed traces of coal tar in places on water lines around James Park.

Leo Sherman, who is involved with James Park Neighbors, said Monday that although the water is safe to drink, he still has concerns.

“Even if the city’s water is not unsafe to drink today, that does not mean it will be safe to drink tomorrow,” he said. “Carcinogens do not belong in our drinking water.”

The petition Sherman and others presented to aldermen Monday demands the city “prioritize the funding and the replacement of all contaminated water mains.”

Additionally, it calls for the city to prioritize communication with southwest Evanston residents on the issue and provide “appropriate water filtration” for their homes. The group is also requesting the city ratchet up its water testing and investigation into the extent of possible contamination in the water mains.

Sherman said the citizens deserve that level of involvement from the city.

“It has to be defined what the problem is and what we’re going to do about it to fix it,” he said. “We deserve the same quality of water that each of you drinks every morning.”

Last month, the city agreed to test 40 sites around James Park and 20 more throughout the city.

A contract for the water testing was approved at the Administration and Public Works Committee meeting Monday night.

City manager Wally Bobkiewicz said although he understands residents concerns, it was too soon for the city to decide to replace the water mains.

The city would have to wait until more action was taken in the lawsuit against ComEd and Nicor before deciding their next step, he said.

“They want this issue resolved, and that’s certainly a reasonable request,” he said. “Until we know exactly what we’re dealing with, we don’t just want to move forward and tear out mains just to tear out mains.”

Bobkiewicz said the lawsuit could provide them with more information about the extent of possible contamination, and that the courts could make more rulings in the case as soon as January. At this point, it is important to remember the water is safe to drink, Bobkiewicz said.

According to city documents, the highest concentration of phenanthrene found in testing thus far was 0.054 ppb, while the potable water standard is 210 ppb, meaning that the water passes the EPA standards for safe drinking. For Fluoranthene, the highest concentration found was 0.029 ppb, while the potable water standard is 280 ppb.

Ald. Judy Fiske (1st) said she “absolutely supports” the residents’ request to replace the water mains. Fiske said she has taken measures in her own home to ensure water quality, including replacing any lead pipes that lead into the house.

Replacing the water mains would be “money well spent,” she said.

“It was really important for me to trust what was coming out of my faucet. And again these folks, absolutely I get it,” she said. “We’re not Flint, but we want people to first of all know their city is being responsive to them and secondly we really care about their well-being.”

Max Gelman contributed reporting.

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Twitter: @noracshelly