La Salle soil samples test at ‘acceptable’ levels after Carus fire, expert says

Residents continue to voice concerns about findings following the fire

Environmental Engineer Brad Brown presents on soil and water levels following the Carus Chemical fire at La Salle City Hall on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023

Soil levels in La Salle continue to test within acceptable levels following the release of a chemical during the Jan. 11 Carus fire, according to a third party consultant hired by the city.

Environmental Engineer Brad Brown of Brownfield Engineering tested 16 topsoil samples, two water samples and one granular sample. While the soil samples tested within normal levels, one water sample taken from rooftop runoff found elevated levels of the chemical that surpassed levels of safe drinking water.

The soil samples were taken from homes and parks most affected by the release of the chemical, potassium permanganate, from the Carus fire and meant to be representative of the whole area, Deputy Clerk Brent Bader said. The water and granular samples were provided by specific concerned residents who wanted additional testing.

Brown said the soil samples results are “good news,” and he does not recommend any further topsoil testing. He declined to speak to any safety concerns about the elevated water sample and the granular sample, which tested to be potassium permanganate in its pure form. Brown declined to speak to any health concerns, saying his expertise is in testing and not toxicology.

Sonya Lunder, a senior toxicology advisor for the U.S Sierra Club, a non-profit environmental group spoke to Shaw Local News Network on Jan. 13, immediately following the aftermath of the Carus fire. She said the chemical, while non-toxic and used in drinking water, still is a corrosive chemical that can cause some harm in high concentrations.

Lunder said in extremely high concentrations, potassium permanganate can cause burning of the lungs if ingested or burning of skin. She said in an event, such as the Carus fire, it’s highly unlikely such harm would occur. As time goes on, rain and snow lower the risk of harm even further by diluting the material, Lunder said.

Residents gather to hear Environmental Engineer Brad Brown's presentation on soil and water levels following the Carus Chemical fire at La Salle City Hall Monday, Feb. 6, 2023

For some residents, the chemical remains visible and has damaged gutters, roofs, driveways and other parts of homes.

More than a dozen residents voiced questions and concerns following Brown’s presentation at Monday’s City Council meeting, with many more who sat and listened. The conversation continued from the Jan. 24 council meeting, in which residents criticized the city for its response to the fire and raised environmental and health concerns.

Resident Brianne Hicks lives in a highly affected neighborhood and brought in an air filter she said turned black after the fire. She asked the council how she can know whether she and other residents are safe.

Bader said he doesn’t have the expertise to tell Hicks and other residents if they’re safe. He said the city’s role is to connect residents with the experts – IEPA, U.S EPA, IDNR, the health department and others – and communicate as much information as possible to residents.

“I can’t tell you that you’re safe, I don’t have the knowledge to tell you. All we can do is bring in the experts,” Bader said. “None of these organizations have told us there’s a significant issue. If there was, I’d be the first person telling you.”

“Unfortunately we as a city, as your council, can only keep the information flowing because we don’t have the answers,” said Mayor Jeff Grove. “We’re going be here, we’re going to listen to concerns, but we don’t have the answers.”

Other residents, such as Brianne Hicks’ father Jamie, said they don’t trust the findings of the EPA, citing quick decisions to determine the soil, air and water levels as safe. Jamie also said the EPA hasn’t returned his calls or given him test results from his home.

Grove encouraged residents to trust the findings of the EPA and Brown, saying he feels comfortable with the accuracy of the findings.

“I’d be comfortable to go to your home, drink your water and let my dog use your yard,” Grove said.

Brown said he will continue to work with the city moving forward to do additional testing as needed. Ideas from residents for testing in the future included taking more water samples and spacing out tests over time to monitor levels.

City Attorney James McPhedran said the city hired Brown to help alleviate resident concerns and do additional testing to verify the EPA’s findings.

“The city wanted to make an investment for the citizens and take a step on your behalf,” McPhedran said, later adding, “You have a lot more information than you did before (Monday). Nothing is being whitewashed, nothing is being hidden. The city is going to be transparent on this and help the public as much as it can.”