Some drinking water wells in north-central Illinois tested off the charts for benzene water contamination after the state’s largest natural gas utility dumped millions of gallons of wastewater into the soil directly above a drinking water aquifer.
The “clear and present danger,” as WCIA of Champaign, Illinois, described the problem, affects the north-central Illinois town of Troy Grove, where Nicor Gas operates its oldest underground natural gas storage facility.
According to WCIA’s Target 3 investigation, lab tests found that benzene levels in eight Nicor gas wells exceeded federal safety standards, with one well registering 26,000 parts of benzene per billion – 5,200 times higher than the maximum five parts per billion set by federal health regulations.
That benzene appears to be finding its way into groundwater that people rely on for drinking. The chemical, which a known carcinogen, is naturally present in crude oil and gasoline, but its association with Nicor is not immediately clear.
The company told WCIA that it does not use benzene in its industrial processes. However, benzene is commonly present in the wastewater used to extract natural gas from underground sources – a process known as fracking.
According to the WCIA report:
Nicor maintains eight underground storage facilities in Northern Illinois, often located in sparsely populated rural areas. Each facility stores highly pressurized bubbles of gas deep underground, displacing the water from sandstone. Upon withdrawing the gas back out of the ground, the company must “rinse” or dehydrate the “wet gas” to separate it from the rest of the chemicals and groundwater that were mixed in with it throughout the production and storage process before it can distribute the methane to homes and businesses.
The leftover wastewater that is removed from the methane contains toxic chemicals, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, often referred to as BTEX. At its seven other storage sites in Illinois, Nicor maintains and operates Class-II underground injection controlled storage wells where it disposes of the wastewater hundreds of feet underground in formations that are designed to prevent the chemicals from reaching soil or drinking water.
Alarming wastewater disposal
Nicor’s process for wastewater disposal was a lot different for its Troy Grove facility, however. According to WCIA, the company “opted for a faster, cheaper solution” that involved digging trenches and laying perforated tiles in farmers’ fields. Nicor then dumped the wastewater onto the perforated tiles, allowing it to saturate the soil.
The company disposed of its wastewater in this way legally. WCIA says permit applications show that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) granted the company special permission to dump the “benzene-laden wastewater” onto these fields, even though the fields sit directly above drinking water aquifer recharge zones – areas where no pollutants should be dumped because of their ability to reach the underground aquifers.
Tests conducted at the dumping site between December 2018 and February 2019 found benzene water contamination levels to be dangerously high. Nicor then started trucking millions of gallons of wastewater to be injected into underground wells in other Illinois locations.
Nicor says it notified the IEPA of the benzene water contamination. The agency issued the company a violation notice in December 2019, ordering it to investigate the matter. IEPA also told Nicor that it would turn the matter over to the state Attorney General’s office if it continued to dump the wastewater in the farm fields.
Leukemia and other health threats
Benzene is a major threat to the environment and is extremely toxic to human health. According to the American Cancer Society, it is one of the top 20 most used and produced chemicals in the U.S.
Most benzene is inhaled as a gas through automobile exhaust and industrial emissions, but benzene water contamination is also another major source of exposure. The chemical quickly evaporates when exposed to air, but when it is concentrated in the soil or groundwater, it can linger for months or years.
Benzene can also be absorbed through the skin. People who draw water from wells that may have been contaminated with the chemical should avoid bathing in it.
Acute and/or prolonged exposures to benzene can lead to blood disorders, such as anemia (a low red blood cell count); a white blood cell deficiency, and a low blood platelet count. More importantly, benzene exposures are also linked to leukemia – particularly acute myeloid leukemia – and other cancers of the blood. Some studies also suggest that the chemical may also promote a multitude of other cancers, according to the American Cancer Society.
Emails obtained by WCIA show that LaSalle County Public Health Director’s office discussed the benzene water contamination problem with the Illinois Department of Public Health months ago and asked that private water wells near the contaminated site be tested.
According to WCIA, the agencies discussed whether to notify homeowners of the potential benzene contamination. Yet four months after identifying the risk, state officials have not yet tested the at-risk wells, nor have they contacted the people who could be exposed to dangerously high benzene levels through their potentially contaminated well water.
The failure of Nicor and the state agencies to notify owners of the potentially contaminated water wells underscores the critical role lawyers can play in holding those responsible for harmful pollution accountable.
Beasley Allen lawyers in our Toxic Torts Section work to protect people and property from toxic chemicals and environmental pollution that results from negligence and wrongful conduct. Our lawyers are currently investigating water contamination as a result of benzene, PFC chemicals, and other highly toxic substances. If you have any questions, contact Rhon Jones, Rick Stratton, or Ryan Kral, lawyers in the Section. Not only do we represent individuals and groups of consumers in cases such as this, we also frequently represent state and municipal governments in litigation involving toxic exposures.