Contaminated drinking water from Peoples Gas leak persists, funds to fix frozen as lawsuit continues

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Ignited, contaminated water from the Spiro's Law website. "In some places, the amount of concentrated gas is enough to set the water coming out of a kitchen sink on fire," the website about the lawsuit said.

A 2016 gas leak into the drinking water supply north of Mahomet continues to be a hot topic, embroiled in regulatory action and lawsuits even five years after the leak.

The first official report of a methane leak from the underground holding wells of Peoples Gas was reported on December 20, 2016. The problem location was at County Rd 350 E. in the township of Newcomb, just north of Mahomet and near Fisher, IL. 

Peoples Gas claims to have capped off the well that was leaking and terminated its use. However, residents in homes in the vicinity said they were still affected by the leak. 

The situation also has led to several initiatives and prompted legislation to solve the problem. However, it took nearly a year before a case was brought to the Illinois Attorney General’s office in October 2017. 

The initial call to action came from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency followed after. The Illinois Attorney General’s office filed a lawsuit against Peoples Gas in 2017 and later made an amendment in 2019. There is another lawsuit pending against the company, on behalf of 21 residents that were said to be affected by the gas leak.

“No drinking water standard exists for methane in drinking water,” a 2018 fact sheet from the Illinois Department of Public Health said. “The U.S. Department of Interior has established a warning level of 10 milligrams of methane per liter (mg/L) of water. Levels of dissolved methane greater than 28 mg/L could release potentially flammable amounts of methane inside a confined space.”

In addition, Peoples Gas responded in the amendment to the first lawsuit that it had been providing bottled water to residents in the affected areas. But the state of Illinois further requested that they provide gas and water separators and monitors to track the levels of contamination in those homes.

One resident, whose water supply did not test positive for contamination when testing was first being done, suggests that more homes have been affected by the leak. Community member Jim Risley said there was confusion in the community about the dangers related to the leak and what was being done to fix the issue. 

“Not much has really been done since 2016 quite frankly and if it has been, the stakeholders out here really don’t know about it. At least to my understanding,” he said. 

Risley has recently had his home retested for methane contamination and is awaiting the results as of this writing. He said he had been in contact with representatives of Peoples Gas and that he was planning to question them about what is being done to address the effects of the leak.

Water district’s solution faces financial obstacle

At a local government level, a plan was proposed that would see the jurisdiction of the Sangamon Valley Public Water District (SVPWD) expanded to include the areas affected by the leak. 

Kerry Gifford, the general manager of the water district, said: “We needed to get the area that the gas well filled in the water district boundaries. And we were able to get that done and get the district boundaries expanded. Chapin Rose assisted with that process.” 

While the expansion of the water district’s jurisdiction means that it is capable of providing drinking water to residents affected by the gas leak, it does not mean that it can physically reach them. This would involve expansion of the physical infrastructure and is part of a plan of which both the water district’s board of trustees and State Senator Chapin Rose have voiced support. 

According to an amendment to Senate Bill 2663, funds for the effort were appropriated in June 2020. It said the General Assembly passed the bill and the governor signed off on it. The amount, $3.8 million, is said to be in hopes of funding the first phase of a two-phase plan to provide uncontaminated water to residents. 

There is a problem though. 

“The second step is getting the money to be released,” Gifford said. “It’s in the Illinois capital budget. We depend on Chapin Rose to do that. He has to go through his caucus to request the money to be released from the governor’s office. I think it has to be requested. We’re completely helpless at this point. We’re talking about expanding a water system. It’s in the water forever.” 

Senator Rose also expressed an impatience with the situation: “Here’s the deal. The house and the senate appropriated the funds for the first phase of this project. The governor, because the governor is chief executive officer, has to spend it. So far, he has not spent it. I’m not going to speculate as to why.” 

Rose suggested a second plan while waiting for the funds to be released. 

“I have suggested that the Sangamon Valley (Public Water District) go to the Champaign County Board, which is over $40 million in federal ARPA funds, all of which can be spent on clean water projects, and ask them to fund the first phase and then, if and when the governor ever gets around to it, we can use those funds to fund phase two,” he said. 

The office of Governor J.B. Pritzker had not given a statement about that funding or the project itself at the time of this writing, but, instead, suggested contacting the Illinois Attorney General because there is pending litigation.

As of this writing, the Illinois Attorney General’s office has not responded. 

The topic of responsibility is one that both Gifford and Rose addressed in their respective interviews.

“There is nothing that I’m aware of that has had any remediation for groundwater contamination in place,” Gifford said. “Peoples Gas has done nothing that I’m aware of to this date.”

Rose disagreed with the idea that taxpayers would have to foot the bill for the results of the leak. 

“The taxpayers didn’t make this mess. Peoples Gas did. And the attorney general of this state, who is in charge of enforcing this legal action against Peoples Gas, has done nothing in five years to get these people drinking water,” he said. “This is not the taxpayers’ mess to clean up. The easiest and quickest way to fix this has been and remains the attorney general actually doing his job and enforcing this action against Peoples Gas for the pollution that they caused, that they created, and forcing them through the power of the attorney general and the court action to order Peoples Gas to extend these water lines.” 

Peoples Gas has faced problems with leaks and an aging pipeline in places other than rural Mahomet. The Chicago Tribune reported in December 2020 on a project to replace the company’s older, iron pipes, some of which dated back to the 1860s. And a study by Kiefner, an engineering company, found that much of the remaining pipeline has a limited, expected lifespan of fewer than 15 years. 

In large enough concentrations and enclosed environments, methane in the air can lead to asphyxiation or be a risk for explosion, but the Illinois EPA has no regulation on the amount of methane in drinking water and has not stated any dangers in consuming it.

The state of Indiana Department of Natural Resources, for example, does list a guideline for what is considered safe. It notes that if levels reach 5 to 15% in the air, fire or explosion is possible, but there is no indication that those levels of contamination are present in north Mahomet.

Dani Tietz of Mahomet Daily also contributed to this story.

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