Joggers and bikers taking the picturesque McHenry County Prairie Path south of Ringwood unknowingly cut through a 25-year-old science experiment.
The mammoth factories of Rohm and Haas and Modine Manufacturing Co. are impossible to miss on the west side of the path. But hidden among the weeds, woods and crops for about a mile are tiny yellow monitoring wells installed since the 1980s to chart the progress of a plume of contaminated groundwater.
Numerous studies commissioned by both companies conclude that past disposal operations have leached volatile organic compounds into the environment. But did the chemicals, most notably carcinogenic vinyl chloride, reach McCullom Lake’s wells to the south and sicken residents with brain cancer, as a Philadelphia attorney has alleged in numerous lawsuits?
You’ll get different answers, of course, depending on whether you ask the companies or the plaintiffs attorney – or the legions of experts that both sides have retained. Both companies are vigorously fighting lawsuits tying the contamination from their closed disposal sites to 22 sick or deceased plaintiffs.
Rohm and Haas has volumes of studies to back up its argument since subsidiary Morton International first reported the pollution in 1983. Rohm and Haas acquired Morton in 1999 and assumed the Ringwood plant’s operations in 2005.
And both sides’ experts have been busy trying to prove their points while discrediting the other side’s research. Reports commissioned by the companies conclude that contamination is moving southeast in a shallow aquifer away from McCullom Lake’s private wells a mile and a half to the south.
Earlier reports further conclude that a thick layer of clay kept the chemicals out of a deeper aquifer that is linked to other aquifers that many McCullom Lake village residents rely upon for drinking water. Defendants also point to the fact that village well tests have shown no trace of the chemicals.
“Yes, there has been some contamination in the groundwater, it has been identified, it is contained, and it has posed no risk at any time to anyone in McCullom Lake village,” Rohm and Haas attorney Ralph Wellington said.
But plaintiff attorney Aaron Freiwald says those studies are flawed. Freiwald's experts have concluded that vinyl chloride, mostly from the breakdown of pollutants trichloroethylene and vinylidene chloride, did in fact reach residents through the deep aquifer and through air emissions.
Freiwald, who sued in April 2006, said the companies myopically followed their original assumptions over 25 years without challenging them.
“It’s certainly possible to ask the wrong questions. And if you ask the wrong questions 100 times, you’re going to get the wrong answer 100 times,” Freiwald said. “It doesn’t matter how many times you ask it. It’s still the wrong question.”
A week after Freiwald filed the first lawsuits, former Rohm and Haas plant manager Herb Cox sent a letter to area politicians stating that not only was Rohm and Haas “open and transparent” about its operations, but also that the “off-site groundwater plume is clearly delineated.”
But documents obtained during legal discovery and through the Freedom of Information Act, Freiwald says, call both statements into question:
• An internal Morton memo reveals that the company knew that its landfill was leaking at least 10 years before the company reported it to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
• Consultants hired by Morton/Rohm and Haas to map the plume’s boundaries have cast doubts in internal e-mails that the wells have given them an accurate picture.
• The deep aquifer that experts repeatedly stated was protected by a clay barrier has tested positive for some of the chemicals linked to the factories’ disposal sites.
• Studies commissioned by the plaintiffs’ attorney, monitoring reports by the defendants’ cleanup consultants, and a state groundwater survey, indicate that unlike the shallow aquifer, the deep aquifer could flow south – toward the east side of McCullom Lake and its private wells.
Morton reported the contamination to the IEPA in 1983 and began looking for a firm to map its spread. But a confidential Morton memo obtained by Freiwald reveals that the company knew in 1973 that it had a problem.
The company had begun considering replacing the landfill with a wastewater treatment facility. In a Dec. 6, 1973, memo, former plant safety and environmental engineer Sidney Martin highlighted a new incentive for doing so: The landfill was leaking.
Water used to maintain the levels of the plant’s fire ponds tested positive for contaminants such as ammonia, chlorides and sulfates, according to the memo to Robert Covalt, then Morton’s corporate engineering manager and later company president.
Martin wrote that the landfill was “the only conceivable source” of the ammonia that triggered Morton’s internal investigation.
Subsequent shallow test holes dug near the landfill found levels of ammonia 266 times that of 1973 groundwater standards, chlorides eight times, and dissolved solids nine times the standard. Martin wrote that although the shallow water table was not a drinking water source, “... infiltration into a lower water strata which is a supply source is a possibility.”
Further investigation concluded that the landfill must be seeping because it was not overflowing, despite the fact that Morton pumped 6 feet of waste into it a year. Otherwise, Martin wrote, “the sludge pit should have been overflowing several years ago.”
Martin’s memo also predicted action to be taken by state and federal agencies “rather abruptly” if the contamination was brought to their attention.
“Assuming that the gross contamination which occurs from seepage from the sludge pit can result in contamination of a drinking water supply, we are in violation of several water quality standards at this time, and will continue to be in violation until use of the sludge pit is discontinued,” Martin wrote.
Morton continued to dump wastes into the landfill for four more years, according to state records and reports from consultants. The company closed the landfill in 1977, in part to comply with Illinois Pollution Control Board sanctions stemming from neighbors’ complaints about odors coming from the factory.
The IEPA did not receive any notice before 1983, spokeswoman Maggie Carson confirmed.
“They knew this in the early 1970s, and they did not tell the state authorities,” Freiwald said. “They kept that from them.”
The information in the memo does not indicate that Morton broke any laws at the time, Carson said. The “right-to-know” laws that industries abide by now were not created until the 1980s, and Carson said the memo did not state whether the contamination was detected beyond Morton’s property.
Wellington, Rohm and Haas’ attorney, said the contamination was not detected off Morton’s property. Furthermore, Wellington added that the chemicals at the heart of Freiwald’s lawsuits were not mentioned in the memo.
“The memo really talked about the fact that in a couple of the drinking wells at the plant itself, they found a couple of non-carcinogenic materials,” Wellington said. “It wasn’t off the property, it wasn’t bad chemicals, and it wasn’t something you had to report because it was on your property, and it wasn’t a bad chemical.”
Geraghty & Miller, a subsequent firm hired by Morton, concluded in a 1987 action plan that contamination reached only the shallow aquifer, and that a thick clay layer, or aquitard, prevented it from seeping into deeper water sources.
But Morton’s early consulting firms never sampled the deep aquifer, which starts about 200 feet underground. The original plume investigation by previous consulting firm IT Corp. was limited to 70 feet deep or less.
One of the three firms bidding in 1984 to investigate the plume, Dames & Moore, proposed digging several deeper monitoring wells, Martin wrote in a Nov. 1, 1984, memo. Martin acknowledged in the memo that the idea had merit because the deeper aquifer “may serve as a source of drinking water in the surrounding area.”
However, he also worried that the idea “may go beyond the desired scope of the initial investigation.”
Neighboring Modine Manufacturing became involved in 1990, after its studies concluded that its former disposal pit had leaked chemicals into groundwater. Seven years later, Morton environmental firm Geomatrix would conclude that Modine’s plume had mixed with its client’s larger one.
Consulting firms came and went for Morton over the years, and later for Rohm and Haas. And Freiwald alleges that all of them followed the original reports as a template and never checked the deep aquifer until URS Corp., the current firm hired by Rohm and Haas, drilled three bedrock wells a year ago.
Consultants’ maps show that the monitoring wells drilled for Morton/Rohm and Haas since 1984 to track the plume’s migration followed the shallow plume to the southeast. Those drilled for Modine since 1990 by its firm, STS Consultants, generally went east, where its studies concluded that the shallow groundwater was headed.
No wells were drilled into the deeper aquifers or between the factories and the village of McCullom Lake, a mile and a half south, during that time, Freiwald said.
Both Wellington and Rohm and Haas spokesman Syd Havely stand by the work done by the consulting firms to chart the plume. Many of the Morton/Rohm and Haas reports are on file at Johnsburg Public Library, as part of its voluntary cleanup program with the IEPA.
“We’re doing everything within our power to show, as clearly and convincingly as we can with well tests, and groundwater monitoring, and everything else we can do, to present that evidence, either in a courtroom, as we’re being forced to do, or in public forums,” Havely said.
Modine Manufacturing, through both its corporate spokeswoman and legal counsel, declined to comment on the pending litigation.
Rohm and Haas’ position is clear – contamination never reached the deep aquifer, and the plume in the shallow aquifer, moving away from any inhabited areas, is precisely mapped.
“The plume is well-identified,” Wellington said. “It never was, never will be, anywhere near McCullom Lake village.”
However, some of the experts retained by the companies have expressed concerns about the accuracy of their mapping of the shallow plume, according to e-mails obtained by Freiwald. URS senior consultant Marek Ostrowski wrote in a Sept. 21, 2005, e-mail to other URS consultants that the distribution of the monitoring wells was not favorable to an accurate map of the contamination.
“The old problem there – all wells are stretched in a line, as opposed to covering an area,” Ostrowski wrote. “This makes the plume picture very arbitrary.”
Steve Moeller, senior geologist with URS, wrote in a May 20, 2005, e-mail to Rohm and Haas site remediation manager Carl Coker that the map of the plume was limited by the distribution of the wells.
Moeller noted in the e-mail that the eastern and western boundaries of the plume “were really speculative.” He further wrote that URS had interpreted the contamination’s extent only just beyond wells with pollution above state standards “... to favor Rohm and Haas.”
Freiwald said he is not insinuating that the shallow aquifer contaminated the village wells. But he said the e-mails cast doubt on the diligence of Rohm and Haas’ assertions as to the location and extent of the contamination.
“I think it’s significant because it allows you to challenge what’s been done, and to question whether the investigations the company has done have been as thorough as they should have been,” Freiwald said.
Until this year, for example, the western edge of the plume was defined solely by three samples taken from a one-time ground “punch” years ago, said hydrogeologist James Hill, one of Freiwald’s experts. Earlier this year, URS Corp. drilled seven new monitoring wells to better define the plume’s boundaries – elevated chloride levels were found in four of the wells and carcinogenic vinyl chloride in three.
Rohm and Haas counters that the memos are far from a smoking gun that discredits 25 years of research.
“Those memos were talking about, ‘We’re not entirely sure where the edge of the plume is.’ That’s really what that language is about, when you talk about ‘arbitrary,’ and so forth,” Wellington said. “It’s not talking about at all, ‘Gee, we don’t know where the plume is in relationship to McCullom Lake village or anyplace else.’ ”
But questions as to the plume’s mapping have surfaced in at least one other report commissioned by the company – a 1997 study by former Morton firm Geomatrix concluded at the time that the extent of the shallow plume’s migration had not, in fact, been defined.
It was not until November 2006, two decades after the original IT Corp. report, that Rohm and Haas had URS Corp. install wells to check the deep aquifer that study after study concluded would be free of contamination.
Test results revealed that it wasn’t.
Consultants drilled three deep-bedrock wells, in response to accusations made during the litigation, in a line just south of the closed 8-acre landfill that was the source of much of the contamination. URS Corp. also tested four existing bedrock wells that Rohm and Haas had relied on for its water supply.
All three of the new monitoring wells tested positive for trace amounts of volatile organic compounds at various depths, with one, chloroform, exceeding government standards, according to the December 2006 report by URS. One of the existing deep wells tested positive for vinylidene chloride, one of the chemicals listed in the lawsuits because it breaks down into carcinogenic vinyl chloride.
All seven of the tested wells also tested positive for varying levels of chloride, the compound first linked to the landfill in the confidential 1973 memo and subsequent reports. Levels in two of the new monitoring wells exceeded standards.
Freiwald said he was not trying to conclude that chloride or the other chemicals detected caused brain cancer, but rather that the contents of the Morton and Modine disposal sites did indeed make it to the deep aquifer.
The appendix of the December 2006 study offers up a possible reason why, Freiwald said – the impenetrable clay barrier that experts since the 1980s said would shield the deep aquifer appears to be missing in at least one location.
Included in each well installation report are boring logs, a foot-by-foot report of the materials encountered while drilling the well. Borings from the first two bedrock wells show a clay barrier at the depth that earlier reports said it should be. The third well, southeast of the landfill and the deepest into the charted contamination plume, shows no clay barrier, but sand and gravel.
“I kind of say this tongue-in-cheek, but it’s sort of like cheese,” Freiwald said. “They assumed that it was a solid block of cheddar cheese, and as it turns out, it’s really more like Swiss cheese. It’s got holes in it.”
Rohm and Haas disputes Freiwald’s interpretation of the reports. Wellington and the company’s experts stipulate that some of the chemicals found in the samples could have come from the drilling process or from chemicals in the testing laboratory.
They also state that the chloride in the samples comes from years of road salting, and not the landfill.
“They’re not any indication of prior [vinyl chloride] contamination,” Wellington said.
Hill, Freiwald’s hydrologist, has testified that there are not enough roads in the rural, agrarian area to account for the amount or depth of chloride discovered in the deep aquifer.
Contamination aside, the question remains whether the groundwater flow ever took it to McCullom Lake’s wells.
The Illinois State Water Survey mapped McHenry County’s aquifers and their flow in 1998. Both sides cite the state study to prove their arguments.
Rohm and Haas and Modine cite geologist Scott Meyer’s 141-page report as proof that the deep aquifer, labeled as Aquifer 5, does not flow south from the Ringwood factories to McCullom Lake village.
Freiwald holds up the report as proof that deep aquifer contamination did reach village wells. Meyer, who still works for the agency, would not comment on the merits of the lawsuits.
But in comparing Meyer’s interpretations of his report with theories from Freiwald’s experts, there are some similarities. The deep aquifer underneath Ringwood starts flowing south-southwest – toward McCullom Lake – before bending southeast toward the Fox River like the shallow aquifer, Meyer said.
However, Meyer warned that his study is a countywide analysis, and local subsurface conditions could differ. The rural nature of the area meant that the state had only three wells from which to test groundwater flow and direction, Meyer said.
“If we had more data points, I’m relatively sure we would change those [groundwater flow lines], maybe a little, likely a lot,” Meyer said.
That deep aquifer connects with the two shallower ones underneath McCullom Lake village, Meyer said. Also, his research shows that the deep aquifer migrates upward in the area, meaning that anything in the deep aquifer would mix with the shallower ones, which many residential wells tap for their water.
State data put McCullom Lake’s wells anywhere between 10 and 300 feet deep. Also, several of the well-monitoring reports from consultants for Rohm and Haas and Modine Manufacturing indicate that the deep aquifer underneath the manufacturers starts flowing southward toward McCullom Lake.
STS Consultants, the firm retained by Modine to chart groundwater contamination, states in several of its monitoring reports that water in the deep aquifer flows south or south-southwest. Likewise, the December 2006 bedrock well report from URS Corp. states that the deep aquifer does not flow southeast like its shallow counterpart, but south-southeast.
Wellington said the reports do not lend credence to the conclusions of Freiwald’s experts.
“The geology right near the plant is very complex, but the new idea that there was a [contamination] ‘superhighway’ or something down in Aquifer 5 is pure speculation,” Wellington said.
Meyer estimated that, depending on the geology between Ringwood and McCullom Lake, the water in the deep aquifer could flow anywhere from a few hundredths of an inch per day, making it impossible for contamination to have made it to village wells, to a yard per day, making it possible.
Studies aside, both Rohm and Haas and Modine can point to one undeniable fact – to date, none of McCullom Lake’s private wells have tested positive for any of the volatile organic compounds listed in the lawsuits.
“There has been no detection in any well tests in McCullom Lake village of any chemical of concern. Period,” Wellington said.
But residential wells in McCullom Lake do contain varying levels of chloride, a non-hazardous compound known to come from the Rohm and Haas landfill, according to well tests and Freiwald’s experts. The question, Freiwald continued, is not where the vinyl chloride is now, but rather where it was over the 40 years since the first landfill started operating.
“We don’t expect vinyl chloride to still be in the village at this time, in 2007, almost 2008. We’re talking 30 years since the faucet was turned off,” Freiwald said. “What we have looked for, and what I think we have developed very solid evidence to show, is a pathway. A highway.”
Freiwald and his experts’ computer modeling conclude that the chloride is the key – besides being linked to the landfills, both vinylidene chloride and trichloroethylene release chloride ions as they degrade. Freiwald alleges that vinyl chloride traveled down the deep aquifer to village wells, and evaporated while leaving the chloride behind as a marker.
Defendants and their experts scoff at the idea.
“It is scientifically impossible that a plume of [volatile organic compounds], chloride and ammonia from Morton could cause a chloride and ammonia impact in McCullom Lake Village without also causing a [volatile organic compound] impact,” Rohm and Haas consultant Frank Rovers concluded.
While the defendants point to a lack of vinyl chloride in residential well tests, Freiwald points to the documents and data he has obtained during the discovery process. He said that his evidence so far contradicts the dual assertions of transparency and accuracy stressed by Rohm and Haas in the days after the first lawsuits.
Ultimately, the decision as to who is right and who is wrong will be made not by hydrogeologists, epidemiologists or toxicologists, but by the U.S. District Court judge who will rule on the class-action lawsuit, and from juries convened for the individual cases. And both sides have stood their ground for almost two years.
“If there’s a nearby chemical company, it seems like an easy thing to blame, but so far the facts don’t seem to bear that out, and we will continue to defend the company,” Wellington said. Freiwald said that he had discredited the facts that Rohm and Haas and Modine have relied upon.
“They asked some of the right questions over those 25 years, and I believe they knowingly avoided other questions during that same period of time,” Freiwald said.
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PART 6: WHAT'S NEXT >> Uncertain futures
PART 5: SPRING HOUSE >> A familiar story
PART 4: THE VILLAGE >> 'A state of limbo'
PART 1: THE PLAINTIFFS >> Fight of their lives >> Did chemical exposure cause cancers? >> Krug: McCullom Lake series necessary journalism >> The cancers >> Plaintiffs' timeline >> Photo gallery >> Submitted photo gallery