The City of Sycamore, Illinois has for years failed to address a lead water crisis while claiming its water “meets or exceeds” Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards, a proposed class action lawsuit alleges.
The complaint claims Sycamore has “created and exacerbated a public nuisance” and violated residents’ constitutionally protected interests by negligently maintaining its drinking water supply. More specifically, the city has not only “misrepresented” the safety of its drinking water, a commodity its more than 18,000 residents pay for, but has, since at least 2016, “recklessly deferred maintenance, avoided replacing failing century-old water mains, and ignored problems with [its] corrosion control treatments,” the case alleges.
“The result is a public health crisis,” the lawsuit says. “The City’s corrosion control treatments cannot be trusted. And hundreds of residents lack the most basic of human needs: clean, safe drinking water.”
The plaintiffs claim the Chicago suburb’s water—described in the 27-page lawsuit as having a “cloudy, red-orange color that stains dishes, bathtubs, sinks, clothes, or anything it touches”; a smell akin to “sewage—so foul, metallic, and rotten that it causes a person to gag”; and a metallic or blood-like taste—has negatively impacted seemingly every aspect of daily life, from cooking and bathing to overall health regardless of age.
From the complaint:
“The impact on Sycamore residents has been colossal. Residents must purchase masses of bottled water to drink, cook with, and brush their teeth. Many residents have given up on washing their dinnerware, and switched to using disposable plates and utensils to avoid having to use the sink. Even a shower can engulf one’s home in the water’s wretched scent.
But more gravely, many continue to develop related health issues. Cancer rates in Sycamore are very high. Young girls have reported inexplicably losing patches of hair. Some children who have consumed the water their entire lives have suddenly started exhibiting aggressive behavior. Others report bizarre neurological issues that confound their doctors.”
Per the case, Sycamore, incorporated in 1869, has “a very old water system” that draws water from four underground wells. The water is then treated with minerals and chemicals before it is supplied to residents via more than 600,000 feet of water mains, the suit says.
According to the lawsuit, residents began voicing complaints about Sycamore’s water in the summer of 2016, when the issues “became more noticeable.” Despite this, the city assured residents that their drinking water was safe to consume, touting the water as meeting or exceeding EPA standards and repeatedly denying any citywide problem, the complaint says.
Rather than tackle the bourgeoning crisis head-on, the city instead dismissed residents’ complaints as “an individual problem” and blamed the issues on “water heaters or fixtures in the homes of the complaining residents,” the case claims. In turn, residents for years accepted Sycamore’s explanations and looked toward addressing water problems within their own homes, with some spending thousands on abatement measures that ultimately did nothing to fix the problem, the lawsuit says.
The case claims, however, that the city’s assurances with regard to the safety of its water have “grown increasingly dubious” in recent months, with residents forming a group, Citizens for Clean Water Sycamore, that’s grown to more than 500 members within a few weeks.
Per the suit, residents have, one by one, sent water samples to private labs for testing. According to the complaint, the results showed elevated lead levels in “practically every home tested, and in homes all over town.”
“One home had lead levels in excess of 200 parts per billion (ppb), more than ten times the action level,” the case says. “Even new homes without lead service lines reported elevated lead levels.”
The problems with Sycamore’s water originate with the city’s “antiquated” infrastructure, the lawsuit asserts. In particular, Sycamore, according to the case, has “a large number of antiquated cast iron water mains”—the alleged source of the problem—that are deteriorating rapidly and that the city has delayed replacing for decades. As the cast iron mains deteriorate, due in part to the high corrosivity of the surrounding soil, they develop “pits and pockets of damage” that allow large amounts of iron particulate to infiltrate Sycamore’s water supply and find its way into residents’ homes, the lawsuit says.
More importantly, the iron in the city’s water supply interferes with any treatments added to the water to protect residents, the complaint alleges. More from the lawsuit:
“First, the iron interacts with an orthophosphate treatment added to the water, which normally would coat the inside of any metal fixtures in the water system and provide a barrier to prevent metals leaching into the water supply. Without this protection, lead from solder, joints, service lines, and plumbing have contaminated water throughout Sycamore’s system, leading to high lead levels in homes.
Second, the iron reacts with chlorine treatments, allowing bacteria to flourish. At best, that bacteria gives the water a foul taste and putrid odor. At worst, the waterborne bacteria seriously threatens the health of the residents, allowing harmful—and possibly even fatal—diseases to thrive.”
The lawsuit looks to represent all individuals and entities who owned property or lived within the City of Sycamore at any time from January 1, 2000 to the present.
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