From 1985 to 2007, the village of Crestwood Illinois used a well known to be contaminated with vinyl chloride for up to 20% of its water supply while telling residents that the supply came from Lake Michigan. Vinyl Chloride is a carcinogen with links to liver damage and nervous system disorders.
Crestwood officials indicted in tainted drinking water scandal
By Lauren FitzPatrick Sun-Times Media firstname.lastname@example.org August 11, 2011 1:26PM
The Crestwood water tower is shown in this 2009 file photo.
For nearly two decades, the former mayor of Crestwood, who ruled the village of 11,000 with an iron fist, hid from regulators and residents the fact that they were drinking contaminated water, federal authorities said Thursday, announcing indictments against two former water department officials.
But Chester Stranczek, whose attorney confirms he’s the “Public Official A” mentioned in the 23-count indictment, has not been charged — and likely will not — face criminal charges, his attorney said, because Parkinson’s disease dementia has left him unfit to stand trial.
Facing felony charges are Frank Scaccia, 59, Crestwood’s former certified water operator, and Theresa Neubauer, 53, former water department clerk and supervisor and currently Crestwood’s police chief. Both are accused of lying to environmental regulators for more than 20 years about using a tainted well to supplement the village’s drinking water supply from Lake Michigan, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald announced in a press release.
The village told residents and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency it was only using Lake Michigan water after 1985, when it discovered a village well had been tainted by vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen. But regulators later discovered the village continued to use the well for as much as 20 percent of its water from 1985 to 2007.
The indictment alleges Scaccia and Neubauer acted with unnamed “Public Official A,” an elected Crestwood government official who had authority over the village’s water system, including the use of the well water. Between roughly 1999 and 2007, “Public Official A” signed regulatory documents on behalf of the village.
“Public Official A” is the elder Stranczek, too sick to stand trial, said Chris Gair, who’s been representing Stranczek in some 200 lawsuits filed over the tainted well scandal.
“I feel confident (prosecutors) are not going to come after him because they are aware that his disease has rendered him unfit to stand trial,” Gair said. “He’s no more able to participate in (the lawsuits) than he would in a criminal case. He does not have the mental capacity anymore to do so.”
Stranczek’s son, current Crestwood Mayor Robert Stranczek, could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon. Employees at the village hall and police department said he and Neubauer were on “planned vacations.”
Neubauer’s attorney, Thomas Breen, said she learned of the charges while camping with her children.
“All of the counts have to do with her when she had a clerical position when she assisted in filing out forms with information given to her by the water department and management,” he said. “The evidence is going to show she had a clerical job filing out forms.”
Neubauer has been placed on administrative leave “pending further review,” according a village statement.
Scaccia’s attorney did not return messages seeking comment. He was fired in March 2010, the village statement said.
“The government’s investigation — resulting in only these false statements charges — confirms that there is not now and never has been any concern with the safety or quality of the drinking water in Crestwood and the health of our citizens has never been compromised or threatened,” the statement read. “Our citizens’ well-being has always been and will always continue to be our top priority.”
An arm of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined there is no safe level of exposure to vinyl chloride, which also can cause damage to the liver and nervous system.
Dozens of lawsuits have been filed against the village over the use of the well water, including one by the Illinois attorney general’s office. Crestwood has footed the multi-million-dollar bill for various defense attorneys.
In December, the village settled one of those suits, which covered water bills paid by current and former residents and village business owners. The settlement established a $500,000 fund to give residents partial refunds on their water bills from January 1985 to September 2007 — the years the village was found to have tapped the contaminated well. The village also agreed to a two-year freeze on the cost of vehicle stickers, business licenses and garbage collection fees, among other conditions.
Other lawsuits alleging wrongful death and personal injury still are pending.
Current and former Crestwood residents Thursday said they were outraged and vindicated. Many spoke of their terrible health problems: kidney problems, tumors, immune system disorders and many types of cancer.
Howard Smith worked for ComEd in Crestwood for years until his 2001 retirement.
“I didn’t live there,” the Manteno resident said, “but I drank from the water fountain and drank the coffee. I’m not sure if my stage 1 kidney disease is from the water or not. Sounds like they’re investigating and if those people are found guilty, they should be punished.”
Crestwood resident John Mazor, 56, blames the water for the eight surgeries he underwent to remove kidney stones from 1999 until 2006. He believes Neubauer and Scaccia may be covering for Stranczek and other superiors, and said the indictments might be the tip of the iceberg.
“Whatever person turned the switch should take the fall,” Mazor said. “Whoever told him to turn the switch should take the fall.
Chester Stranczek “ran this town with a steel fist. Everything Crestwood was, was because of him,” he said.
Contributing: Casey Toner, Hannah Kohut
April 2009: Agents from the federal Environmental Protection Agency raid the Crestwood village hall in light of revelations Crestwood supplemented its drinking water supply from Lake Michigan with water from a contaminated well between 1985 and 2007, and then lied about it to regulators.
September 2009: The IEPA digs around the tainted well to try to determine if a nearby dry cleaners was responsible for leaking the cancer-causing chemicals that were leeching into the groundwater.
October 2009: Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sues Crestwood, alleging that Mayor Robert Stranczek, his father — former Mayor Chester Stranczek — and water official Frank Scaccia told residents and the state EPA the village used 100 percent Lake Michigan water, without mentioning that 3 to 20 percent of the water came from the contaminated well. That same month Crestwood ends its longtime practice of rebating property taxes to residents, citing mounting legal costs from the water scandal. Also, the village’s insurance companies deny its request to pay to defend the village in dozens of lawsuits.
March 2010: Scaccia is fired.
July 2010: Crestwood settles with residents who believed they were paying for pure lake water between 1985 and 2007, establishing a $500,000 fund that gives residents and businesses partial refunds on past water bills.
April 2011: Just before municipal elections, the village sends a newsletter to residents downplaying the water scandal as a “manufactured issue.” Two incumbent trustees are replaced by newcomers who campaigned against village secrecy over the water scandal.
August 2011: A federal grand jury indicts Scaccia and Theresa Neubauer, another former water official now working as village police chief.