Chicagoland suburb had its own water crisis long before Flint

| February 8, 2016 | Comments (0)

waterWhen I saw the news reports outlining the ongoing Flint water crisis, I wondered if the Crestwood families who went through their own deadly water poisoning are having flashbacks. If you don’t remember the story, Crestwood is a small, Southwest suburb near Crestwood and Route 83.  For years the Chicago suburb was known for giving property tax rebates to all citizens every year. Former Mayor Chester Stranczek was praised for running such an efficient city government through “a combination of privatization of village services, a friendly business climate, and fiscal restraint, all while providing a high degree of personal service.”

While Mayor Stranczek was sending village residents money back every year, Crestwood officials were hiding a secret. The truth took a long time to come out. “In 1999, Crestwood resident, Tricia Krause began trying to find answers as to why her three children were suffering almost constantly from a variety of illnesses ranging from whooping cough, compromised immune systems, a brain tumor to leukemia,” according to Wikipedia. She wasn’t the only one. Citizens across Crestwood were spending time in doctor’s offices trying to solve health issues that appeared seemingly without cause.

It took 10 years of dogged research before Krause uncovered enough evidence to put together the pieces. “In 1986, after the Illinois EPA had told them that Municipal Well #1 was contaminated, Crestwood officials had promised to start drawing all of their water from Lake Michigan, and to use the contaminated well only in emergencies. Instead, the well remained in use until December 2007. In 2007 the well was tested by the Illinois EPA for the first time in 20 years. The EPA also learned at that time that the well was still in regular use. Residents were not notified of the contamination by the Illinois EPA, the Illinois Department of Public Health or by the village. Although the Illinois EPA claimed that they discovered the “illegal and secret” use of the well in late 2007, they never notified the residents of Crestwood that they had been drinking contaminated well water for more than twenty years.” The Water Contamination in Crestwood Wikipedia page continues by saying, “Crestwood’s public water supply was contaminated with perchloroethylene, or PCE, a dry-cleaning solvent linked to cancer, liver damage and neurological problems and vinyl chloride.”

For more than 20 years, Crestwood officials knowingly poisoned their residents in the name of saving money. The Chicago Tribune noted that “unwilling to fix leaky water mains, village leaders secretly supplemented their supplies for more than two decades with a community well the officials knew was contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals. The officials then repeatedly lied in documents intended to assure the public their drinking water was safe.”

In the end, two city officials went to jail, but Mayor Stranczek never spent a day in jail. “In April 2013, Crestwood police chief Theresa Neubauer, who was also the city’s water commissioner, and certified water operator Frank Scaccia were both found guilty of lying to environmental regulators about water quality. Chester Stranczek had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and was found not competent to testify about the pollution charges.”

Crestwood officials eventually agreed to “a $15 million payout to settle lawsuits filed by hundreds of current and former residents that allege they or family members were harmed by the village’s longtime use of a contaminated well to help supply drinking water in the south suburb.” The story was over as far as village officials were concerned, but for the families affected by the poisoned water, the story never ends.

While we cannot know how the Flint crisis will play out, it is important to remember that Flint is the latest example of village officials behaving in ways that permanently damage their citizens. In these cases, elected officials switched water sources to save money. In both cases, elected officials denied a problem existed, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.  Elected officials hid information from citizens who asked the right questions, putting them and their families in danger.

If there is a moral to these stories it is one we have heard before — public servants do not always serve the public. We’ve always know this, but time and time again terrible, mind-boggling reminders about just how bad public officials can behave become top news stories. Elected officials behave badly because citizens trust elected officials to do what is right for them, so they stop paying attention. We need to change our thinking and realize that the election is not the end. Citizens must constantly monitor elected officials and their activities. They have to show up at meeting and ask questions. They have to read proposals and question details. They need to let elected officials know that they are being monitored. It’s the part of Democracy that no one wants to handle. Who wants to believe that those they elected cannot be trusted? Yet time and time again public officials prove they cannot be trusted.

What can citizens do? When the questions they ask are not getting answered, it is important to escalate concerns to anyone who will listen and stay strong. It is only through determined efforts and strong wills that the stories of Crestwood and Flint became public knowledge. The next examples of public officials behaving badly will be uncovered. The real question is who will have the strength to uncover those examples and how long will it take before anyone listens?


Shari writes about life with twins at Two Times the Fun. Image courtesy of Stock Free Images.

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About Shari: Shari is a mom, wife, marketing communications professional, gardener, Chicago Blackhawks fan, college sports fan, traveler, quilter, community volunteer, sister, daughter, aunt, friend, Siberian Husky owner, Girl Scout troop leader and book lover. You can find Shari blogging about life with twins at Two Times the Fun and tweeting @slcs48n1. View author profile.

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