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Discolored, smelly tap water? Here’s what may cause that in Sycamore

EPA says secondary contaminants, which aren’t federally regulated, could cause discoloration, smell

Editor’s note: This is Part 3 of a series by the Daily Chronicle looking into the water system in the city of Sycamore. This project was made possible, in part, through a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. This series is being made available to our readers for free. Please consider subscribing to help us continue the work we do on behalf of our communities. Catch up on Part 1 and Part 2 here.

What’s your water story? The Daily Chronicle wants to hear feedback from you on what you’ve experienced in your Sycamore home, responses to our ongoing reporting or questions you still have. Share more at this survey.

SYCAMORE — Growing up in and around Sycamore, Michelle Anderson said she’s had two different experiences when it comes to the water flowing from her tap — neither very good.

She’s lived just outside the city limits on well water. She’s lived in Sycamore for 13 years with tap water that she said “smelled like sulfur and ran brown.” Now, she’s back to well water that may be hard and leaves calcium and rust deposits in the showers, but at least “it’s drinkable and does not stink,” she said.

Through it all, Anderson has also learned an important lesson in home buying and homeownership.

“I will never buy another house without running the water for color or smell again after living in town,” she said.

Anderson’s comments were similar to complaints about water quality issues many residents have made to city officials in the past year. Residents have described water that is murky brown or yellow or water that is foul-smelling.

Questions also persist among Sycamore residents spurred by several homes in the city’s south side neighborhoods testing positive for elevated lead levels. As a result of those levels, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has started to require water testing in the city every six months.

Residents say they wanted to bring awareness to city officials that discolored, foul-smelling water comes out of their homes’ taps and they refuse to use it. Those complaints soon turned into a larger fear that toxic lead, which can cause severe health issues, is prevalent in Sycamore city water.

It’s unclear whether the two issues – discoloration and odor, and elevated lead levels – are related, and Sycamore city officials have not identified a source of the discoloring and smell, but have outlined a plan to replace 120 lead service lines throughout the city at no cost to private property owners if they opt in. It’ll be paid for in part by a $1.6 million loan from the IEPA the city of Sycamore was approved for in December.

What water quality experts say

Sycamore Public Works Director Matt Anderson said the city’s water draws from five wells, which all draw from nearby groundwater aquifers. From there, the well water is treated through what he equated to a big Brita filter. The filtered water is then directed to the city’s water main pipes and flowed throughout service lines to the city.

From there, the water goes to private service lines, which then bring the water to residential plumbing.

Some of Sycamore’s water mains are nearly a century old, and at least 120 of the water lines are lined with lead, according to city officials.

Plans to replace those lead lines are underway, though Anderson has said the city believes more could be identified.

So, what could be causing discoloration that many residents report from the taps inside their homes?

Melissa Lenczewski, an environmental sciences professor at Northern Illinois University who leads the school’s Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy, said it’s likely a result of the makeup of the city’s water lines.

Lenczewski helps teach a water quality class as part of NIU’s environmental studies program. She said the city of Sycamore draws water out of the ground and tests that groundwater, which then gets put into a distribution system.

Lenczewski said the federal lead and copper rule – which is 15 parts per billion, or ppb, and 1300 ppb, respectively – regulates city water system infrastructure more than groundwater. She said radium is often more common in the region’s groundwater.

“Really, it’s the infrastructure, what’s inside of the community, that causes it,” she said.

According to the city of Sycamore’s website, lead is not found in the city’s source groundwater. The city uses a corrosion control treatment with a phosphate blend to treat groundwater. The EPA’s lead and copper rule requires water treatment utilities to make drinking water less corrosive to the materials it comes into contact with on its way to taps.

Corrosion can occur through wear and tear of the metal that encases water service lines, which causes a chemical reaction between water and plumbing, according to Sycamore’s website.

Lenczewski said she’s familiar with the recent water quality concerns from Sycamore residents, and reviewed city records the Daily Chronicle obtained in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Form what she read, she said she believes the city of Sycamore is following regulations for groundwater treatment and the city’s water main infrastructure.

“That’s really their responsibility,” Lenczewski said.

Lead service lines and piping are usually to blame for lead levels in the area, Lenczewski said, since lead is not as naturally prevalent in northern Illinois ground water.

According to the city of Sycamore’s website, replacement of service lines on residential property is usually up to the property owner to pay for, while the city maintains public lines up to private property.

A new plan funded by the $1.6 million state grant, however, will lift the financial burden off of residents who wish to participate. The grant will allow the city to replace lead-lined water systems on residential property at no cost to the property owner.

Mailers for that replacement program went out at the end of January, since the city identified 120 lead service lines so far. Residents who receive that letter from the city can opt in to the city’s replacement program and have the water lines replaced for free, Anderson said.

Tomoyuki Shibata, a public health professor at NIU who co-teaches the water quality class with Lenczewski, said lead is tasteless and colorless, though iron or copper could make water taste metallic.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, any amount of lead exposure can be damaging to a person’s brain.

Shibata said lead level compliance is considered a primary drinking water regulation. He said taste and smell are considered secondary regulations.

“With secondary regulations, technically, water treatment plants don’t have to comply,” Shibata said. “Because the taste of it and the smell of it, people don’t like it, but that’s not going to cause diarrhea or even cancer in the future.”

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, primary standards establish maximum contaminant levels (lead, for example) designed to protect the public against drinking water that could be harmful to their health. While secondary standards are set for issues such as taste, color or odor, they’re guidelines that aren’t enforced by the EPA because the federal agency doesn’t consider such contaminants, such as excess chloride or iron, significantly detrimental to someone’s health.

Why set secondary standards then?

“EPA believes that if these contaminants are present in your water at levels above these standards, the contaminants may cause the water to appear cloudy or colored, or to taste or smell bad,” EPA guidance states. “This may cause a great number of people to stop using water from their public water system even though the water is actually safe to drink.”

Secondary standards set by the EPA include recommended amounts for 15 contaminants that could affect tap water.

Excess aluminum, more than 0.2 milligrams per liter, can cause colored water, according to the EPA. More than 250 milligrams per liter of chloride can cause a salty taste. Excess copper can cause water to taste metallic or have a blue-green color. Corroded pipes can cause water fixtures to stain. Excess fluoride over 2 milligrams per liter can cause tooth discoloration. Iron exceeding 0.3 milligrams per liter can cause water to have a rusty color, taste metallic or have sediment in it.

According to the United States Geological Survey, tap water can smell or taste like rotten eggs because of an excess of hydrogen sulfide gas, which can occur when groundwater is filtered through organic materials or rock. The odor can be from other contaminants, too, however, and the survey recommends getting water tested through a health department to better determine the source.

To counteract secondary source issues, the EPA recommends water infrastructure improvements such as addressing corroded pipes in water service lines, and aerating and filtering water on its way to the user. Other, more expensive measures can be taken, too, such as installing reverse osmosis systems, according to the EPA.

Lenczewski said most people don’t see or recognize water quality issues until it starts affecting them personally.

“So people like to put them together because they’re all water, they’re all the water that comes into their homes,” Lenczewski said. “So we do sympathize with them.”