Unwilling to fix leaky water mains in Crestwood, a south suburb known for its penny-pinching ways, village leaders secretly supplemented their supplies for more than two decades with a community well they knew was contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals.
Then they repeatedly lied about it in documents intended to assure the public their drinking water was safe, according to federal criminal charges filed Thursday against two Crestwood officials accused of participating in the scheme.
Village officials kept drawing water from the tainted well even though the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency had told them in 1986 that it was contaminated with vinyl chloride and dichloroethylene, toxic chemicals related to the dry-cleaning solvent perchloroethylene, or perc. Crestwood fended off authorities for more than two decades by telling them the well would be used only in emergencies.
It is unclear if anyone got sick from drinking the tainted well water. A 2010 study by the Illinois Department of Public Health found that cancer rates in Crestwood are "significantly elevated" and that toxic chemicals in the village's drinking water could have contributed, but researchers could not make a definitive link.
Former Mayor Chester Stranczek, who led Crestwood for nearly 40 years and boasted that he ran the village of 11,000 like a business, is not mentioned by name in the federal indictment. Nor is his son, Robert, who took over as mayor in 2007.
But a Tribune review of records mentioned in the indictment shows that "Public Official A" — the person identified as signing federally mandated Safe Drinking Water Act reports between 1999 and 2007 — is Chester Stranczek.
Those annual reports stated that treated Lake Michigan water purchased from neighboring Alsip was Crestwood's only source of drinking water. Other records show that Stranczek had ordered his lieutenants to keep using the contaminated well.
Like Chicago and other Illinois communities that rely on water from Lake Michigan, Crestwood is allocated a set amount to ensure the state complies with a U.S. Supreme Court order limiting daily withdrawals. Crestwood, though, had "substantial leakage" in its distribution system, a problem that officials "failed to adequately remedy," according to the indictment.
A federal grand jury accused Neubauer and Scaccia, both of Crestwood, of falsifying reports that would have shown the well was being used to help meet demand. As a result, the village avoided routine testing for toxic chemicals and audits of its water usage. The well wasn't finally shut off until 2007, after state officials tested it for the first time since 1986.
"To safeguard public health, it is absolutely essential that government officials assure compliance with environmental regulations through accurate and honest reporting," said Randall Ashe, special agent in charge of the U.S. EPA's Office of Criminal Enforcement in Chicago, who led a raid of Crestwood Village Hall two weeks after the Tribune first publicly revealed the use of the tainted well.
During the two years since U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's office launched a criminal probe, Crestwood has paid criminal and civil defense attorneys more than $3.3 million to defend the Stranczeks and other officials, according to a tally provided by the village's attorney. Insurance has covered about $1 million; disputes about other claims are pending in court.
Some of the most expensive legal bills were to prepare a defense for Chester Stranczek, whose paid experts concluded the former mayor has "mild to moderate" dementia caused by Parkinson's disease and isn't fit to stand trial.
"He is not in a position to assist in his defense on any charges," said Chris Gair, Stranczek's attorney, on Thursday.
The former mayor attracted national recognition for cutting costs, rebating property taxes and maintaining the lowest water rates in Cook County. In a 2009 interview with the Tribune, Robert Stranczek said he had known about the routine use of the well since at least 1997, when he became a village trustee. He was appointed mayor in 2007 when his father retired.
With the village paying defense lawyers who charge up to $500 an hour, rather than $180 an hour for routine municipal work, Robert Stranczek told residents in October 2009 that they no longer would be getting property tax rebates.
Thomas Breen, Neubauer's attorney, described his client as a "clerk who filled out forms based on information given to her."
"She is absolutely heartbroken," Breen said. "She never would do anything to harm the people of Crestwood, where she's lived her entire life."
Efforts to reach lawyers for Scaccia were not successful.
Village officials also face civil lawsuits, including one filed by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan that accuses the Stranczeks and Scaccia of lying more than 120 times about the tainted well.
Gov. Pat Quinn and state lawmakers responded to the Tribune investigation by requiring more frequent monitoring, prompt disclosure of water contamination to consumers and tougher penalties for deceiving state officials.
Crestwood officials, meanwhile, continue to say they did nothing wrong.
In April, shortly before municipal elections, village officials sent a newsletter to residents calling the water scandal a "manufactured issue" fueled by a "media frenzy" and "exploitive legal and political actions." They issued a statement Thursday insisting that people never were at risk from drinking the contaminated water, which at times accounted for at least 20 percent of the village's supply.
"Our citizens' well-being has always been and will always continue to be our top priority," the statement read.
Some residents see the criminal charges and mounting legal bills and wonder why something wasn't done earlier to stop what the village was doing.
"It's another very troubling day," said Theresa Flynn, who was elected to the Village Board in April after organizing her neighbors to raise concerns about the contaminated well. "There are no winners in this case."
Feds indict 2 over tainted Crestwood well
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