News - DeKalb County

Sycamore residents say water tests show elevated lead; City says otherwise. Here’s what we know.

Alyssa Force, (left) Amber Quitno, and Jessica Pennington, (right) members of the Citizens for Clean Water Committee hold a glass of water Wednesday at a house on Edward Street in Sycamore, one of the houses that has had problems with the water quality.

SYCAMORE – Test results from two EPA-certified laboratories show discrepancies in lead levels in Sycamore residents’ homes.

Results for residents on Edward Street, Alden Drive and East Elm Street conducted by an EPA-certified St. Charles-based water conditioning and treatment company show high levels of lead – more than 60 parts per billion. The Evironmental Protection Agency's threshold for 'safe' amounts of lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion.

However, results from a Geneva EPA-certified lab commissioned by the City of Sycamore show 5.57 parts per billion in a sample size of 30 homes surveyed.

So which result is right? It depends, apparently, on who you ask.

Residents affiliated with a group calling themselves Citizens for Clean Water Sycamore are demanding that the city address concerns and retest residents' water.

"Water quality has been deteriorating over the last several years in many of our older neighborhoods," the group's statement of concerns reads. "Conversations with the city have not provided the confidence that this foul water is, indeed, safe. Additional research has uncovered many questions about infrastructure and testing that the city has yet to answer."

The group says it has now identified two major problems it said involve city water: a foul-smelling odor that prohibits them from using it, and concerning amounts of lead in the water. It's unclear whether the two issues are related, as officials are still working to identify the source of the odor and thus far, maintain that lead levels within city water are safe.

Jennifer Campbell, of the 400 block of Edward Street, who’s been a frequent face appealing to the City Council, on Monday said that the group has retained legal counsel as concern over lead contamination rises.

In a statement to the Daily Chronicle, the group says it’s working closely with the Sycamore City Council, Public Works Department, and the water treatment facility’s staff “to investigate, address and correct these concerns expeditiously.”

The group has also put forth a list of concerns, including addressing the city’s aging water mains (many more than 100 years old) and elevated lead levels, and an update on mitigation efforts to reduce lead levels after a report in 2018 found elevated levels in 10 schools in DeKalb and Sycamore, including in elementary schools.

Contradicting test results

According to documents obtained by the Daily Chronicle through the Freedom of Information Act and shared by the Citizens group, test results by EPA-certified labs show contradicting levels of lead in the water.

Clean Water Testing, an EPA-certified laboratory based in Appleton, Wisconsin, conducted the testing on samples collected by Prairie State Water Solutions Inc., a company in St. Charles. Prairie State tested on a home in the 400 block of Edward Street on Sept. 28, records show.

Lead levels came back at 64.5 ppb, and was marked as in excess.

"Excess levels of lead can cause damage to the brain, kidneys, nervous system, red blood cells and reproductive system," according to the test result document. "The EPA and DNR consider levels above 15 parts-per-billion harmful."

Another test conducted by the same company Sept. 28 in the 600 block of Edward Street show lead levels at 15.1 ppb. A third test in the 200 block of Alden Drive show lead levels at 19.0 ppb and a fourth test of a home in the 300 block of East Elm conducted Sept. 28 showed lead levels at 27.9 ppb.

The city of Sycamore, however, uses a different EPA-certified lab: Suburban Laboratories Inc., based in Geneva.

According to FOIA documents, those lab results show lead levels at 5.57 ppb after a July 8 collection.

EPA response

When reached for comment regarding the discrepancy in the test results, Kim Biggs, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency spokesman, said it has to do with how the results are collected.

"The samples in these documents were taken from outside spigots, which are likely made from brass," Biggs said. "Those types of fixtures often times can cause elevated lead levels in water samples. Compliance samples for lead and copper should be taken from the cold-water kitchen tap or bathroom tap, where water is consumed."

While Prairie State Water Solutions had a technician come out and gather samples himself, water samples for the city's tests were gathered by residents themselves.

Biggs said her office has been in contact with Sycamore officials, however.

"They plan to do additional sampling at these homes," Biggs said. "Those follow-up samples will be taken from the kitchen/bathroom as guidelines state."

Biggs also addressed the odor complaints.

"Regarding the odors, the confined aquifer used by Sycamore as a source water does have elevated levels of sulfur/hydrogen sulfide," she said. "The sulfur component does create an odor that is sometimes detectable. However, there is no maximum contaminant level applicable to finished water or distribution sample results."

City reactions

In an emailed joint statement, Sycamore Mayor Curt Lang, City Manager Brian Gregory and assistant public works director Matt Anderson said the city continues to comply with EPA standards.

"The City is more than willing to inspect residents' plumbing to identify possible causes," the statement reads. "The City wants to work with the residents on this issue."

The City Council on Monday deliberated on a monthly fee to place on residents’ water bills to help pay for an $11.2 million overhaul of the water system to begin addressing water main replacement. The water master plan, approved in 2019, was put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic and city officials not wishing to increase water bills during times of financial constraint.

In their statement, city officials cited the EPA's website on how lead gets into drinking water, and said lead pipes are more commonly found in homes built before 1986.

"Lead can enter drinking water when plumbing materials that contain lead corrode, especially where the water has high acidity or low mineral content," the cited EPA explanation reads. "The most common sources of lead in drinking water are lead pipes, faucets and fixtures."

During the Sycamore City Council meeting Monday, Campbell said the water lines going into her home are copper-lined, not lead.

Officials also reiterated how they're required to comply with EPA guidelines when gathering samples, and that's why the test results differ.

The statement also addressed odor complaints.

"This is an issue that staff has been working on, and it is believed to be due to water age," they said in the statement. "Staff has been inspecting the distribution system to identify possible reasons for the reported odor. City staff is also documenting all water quality calls to better identify areas of more frequent issues."

Chain of custody in testing

Amber Quitno, who said she's not a part of the Citizens group but is a concerned Sycamore resident, said she's not buying it.

"We need to retest," she said. "A lot of these residents that have reached out to me are completely untrusting now. They need an independent resource for this."

Quitno lives on Sterling Drive with a well and also owns a home on Crescent Drive where she's experienced water that she said smells "like feces," and is calling on the city to hire a different lab to test the results. She voiced skepticism that where the water is pulled from – the outdoor spigot or from inside a tap – shows accurate results.

She also said she wants to see a chain of custody for the water collection samples.

Documents obtained by the Daily Chronicle from the city of Sycamore show that chain is documented, in part, through a log.

When Sycamore tests lead and copper levels – this year it was done July 8, records show – public works crews ask residents to collect the water themselves. Thirty homes are chosen as the collecting sites, and residents are instructed to not use the water overnight, and collect from a kitchen or bathroom tap first thing in the morning, before anyone has used the water or flushes the toilet.

The chain of custody record shows water samples were picked up by city employee Bryan Carlson from 30 sites July 8 – the earliest at 5:30 a.m. and latest at 1 p.m. – and two in the early morning July 9, at 5:45 a.m. and 6 a.m.

History of problems

Water quality in Sycamore has been a topic for months, with renewed public calls for improvement, although some residents say they’ve been tackling the issue for years. Some who live in Sycamore’s older neighborhoods – many with water mains more than 100 years old – say they can’t use their water because of the foul smell and gummy texture, which ruins appliances and prohibits them from even drinking it. It’s a complaint that’s been echoed at meetings throughout the summer, with some saying the water has a sulfuric or chemical smell, and others saying it smells like plain old sewage.

In their ongoing pitch to the city, residents have said they’ve tried to mitigate problems on their own at the direction of public works officials – buying new appliances, buying special filters, replacing their plumbing or water heaters. Many say they’ve complained to the city for years with no result. Some residents say they’ve spent thousands of dollars to redo plumbing and to buy new water heaters or softeners, all to no avail.

Matt Anderson, the city’s assistant public works director, reiterated that the city’s water quality is compliant with standards set down by the IEPA. The city’s water treatment includes radium removal, a phosphate blend to isolate chlorine, a fluoride treatment and a chlorine treatment for all 115.4 miles of water main. The city reports levels of all those chemicals to the IEPA monthly, officials said.

In an email sent by Anderson on July 28 to city officials, he said he's aware of the issue expressed by Campbell and several others.

"Water Division Staff has spent a great deal of time and effort trying to improve the water quality in the area and will continue to do so," Anderson said. "This has been an ongoing issue in this area, dating back several years."

In a letter sent to Campbell by Anderson on July 28, he assures her that the water, which Campbell described as smelling like “asphalt mixed with sewage” in August, was safe to drink.

Anderson has said all the wells in Sycamore are groundwater, and that the oldest on Maertz Drive was drilled in 1970. The newest, on Heron Creek, was drilled in 2014.

"Per our conversation, I am writing to assure you that the City of Sycamore's water is safe to drink," Anderson said in the letter. "The City of Sycamore meets all the contaminant levels required by the U.S. EPA and State of Illinois and is safe to drink."

That was before Campbell got her lead results back, she said Monday. When asked during the City Council meting Monday again whether the water was safe to drink, Anderson was instructed by city attorney Keith Foster not to respond.

This article has been updated to clarify that Praire State Water Solutions, Inc., gathered the samples collected by a technician, and the results were sent to their contract EPA-certified laboratory in Appleton, Wisconsin

Kelsey Rettke

Kelsey Rettke

Kelsey Rettke is the editor of the Daily Chronicle, part of Shaw Media and DeKalb County's only daily newspaper devoted to local news, crime and courts, government, business, sports and community coverage. Kelsey also covers breaking news for Shaw Media Local News Network.