By Robert P. Mader
Of Contractor’s staff
Lisle, Ill.— Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan and DuPage County State’s Attorney Joseph Birkett have filed suit against sheet metal equipment manufacturer Lockformer Co., charging that the firm has violated state water pollution standards and created a substantial danger to human health and the environment.
The state and county also sued Honeywell International, the successor to AlliedSignal, which had supplied the solvent trichloroethylene to Lockformer.
In November, a group of Lisle homeowners sued Lockformer in federal court, charging that the firm contaminated their drinking water wells by illegally spilling TCE on the ground in and around its plant here for 25 years (December 2000, pg. 1).
TCE is a solvent that was used by Lockformer as a degreaser, the suit states.
The plaintiffs are seeking a safe domestic water supply, compensation for the lost value of their homes, and other compensatory and punitive damages. Because approximately 100 homes that use water wells are in the area near the Lockformer facility, the plaintiffs asked for the suit to be certified as a class action.
Federal District Court Judge Harry D. Leinenweber certified the suit as a class action on Feb. 23.
The suit claims that Lockformer has used the site since 1968 and has degreased metal parts with a degreasing pit that was supplied with TCE from a rooftop tank. The solvent was continually spilled on the ground for more than 25 years, the suit claims, and it was also used to clean the floor of the facility.
In 1992, according to the suit, Lockformer discovered that the ground around the plant was contaminated with TCE at levels 10,000 times higher than the standards allowed for drinking water by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. After the extent of the contamination was discovered, Lockformer became part of the Illinois Site Remediation Program under the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
It did not, however, tell its neighbors about the TCE, the suit states.
In August 2000, Lockformer asked the Board of Trustees of the Village of Lisle to pass an ordinance banning water well drilling within 100 ft. of its property. The purpose of seeking that ordinance, said plaintiff’s attorneys, was to get a No Further Remediation Letter from the IEPA.
That August request of the Lisle board was the first that neighbors heard about the alleged contamination, the class-action suit states.
In the latest action, the state and county authorities were successful in obtaining an agreed court order requiring Lockformer to provide safe drinking water to neighboring residents. The company agreed to pay for twice-weekly deliveries of bottled water from a private firm.
DuPage County Circuit Court Judge Robert E. Byrne entered an agreed order for an immediate and preliminary injunction requiring Lockformer to hire professional engineers and geologists to continue investigating the extent of soil and groundwater contamination in the vicinity of the Lockformer site.
The state and county lawsuit followed testing of private wells for TCE contamination by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. The IEPA found TCE in 34 out of 48 residential wells it tested, with nine of those wells exceeding the federal limit of 5 parts per billion. In addition, the homeowners’ attorneys had hired a private firm that earlier tested 33 other wells and found TCE in 21 of them.
The state and county lawsuit alleges that Lockformer and Honeywell allowed hazardous chemicals to spill and, consequently, contaminate the soil and groundwater at the plant and in the nearby community. The IEPA referred the case to Ryan’s office after its studies showed levels of TCE exceeding acceptable limits.
Trichloroethylene is a known human carcinogen, according to documents filed with the court. Exposure to TCE can cause various ailments including eye irritation, nausea, dizziness, headache, and possible death from respiratory or cardiac failure.
Ryan pointed out that letters have been delivered to dozens of affected residents in the area urging them to use an alternative drinking water supply. Lockformer has agreed to reimburse them for the costs.
The suit seeks civil penalties of up to $50,000 per violation, along with an additional $10,000 for each day the violations continue, and reasonable attorney’s fees and court costs.
One of the goals of the federal class-action suit is to have Lockformer pay the cost of connecting homeowners to the Lisle municipal water supply. Lisle charges based on the frontage of a property at a cost of $28 a foot, plus a $790 hookup fee. The charge does not include the cost to run the water supply from the street into the house; the homeowner would have to contract with a plumber to do the work.
In a related action, Lockformer filed suit Feb. 21 in DuPage County Circuit Court against five current and former insurance companies. The suit claims that the insurance companies should indemnify and defend it against both the class-action and state lawsuits.