It took a lot of time and arm twisting, but McCullom Lake Village President Terry Counley got village wells and air tested for vinyl chloride.
At this time last year, Underwriters Laboratories sampled 293 of the village’s 400-plus private wells, and reported last January that all but one was free of the carcinogen blamed in 33 lawsuits to date for causing a cluster of brain and pituitary tumors in the area. The one sample that did test positive came from a new, stagnant holding tank that tested clean after being flushed.
In September, another firm tested the air inside and outside 10 village homes and concluded that air contaminants, including vinyl chloride, were well below federal acceptable levels.
It doesn’t matter to Counley that money for the testing came from Rohm and Haas, the Ringwood chemical company accused in the lawsuits of causing the cancers through decades of air and groundwater pollution. What matters, he said, is that independent testing concludes that the village is safe today.
“Some people are having a hard time selling their homes, and getting renters for that matter, because of the stigma that went with the accusations. [Testing] helped clear that up,” Counley said.
But to some of the 33 plaintiffs who still live in town, such as Rusty Freund, Counley’s assertion that a “black cloud has been lifted” falls short. Her husband and their former next-door neighbor both were diagnosed with oligodendroglioma, a brain tumor that affects about one person in 300,000.
“This illusion that this cloud has been lifted is just that – an illusion,” Rusty Freund said. “Everyone around here is dying of cancer.”
Illusion or reality, the road that ended with air and well testing is paved with government missteps.
A list of setbacks
Three years and 23 plaintiffs into the lawsuits, McHenry County Board member Tina Hill no longer could sit idly by.
Hill, R-Woodstock, grew up in the Lakeland Park subdivision on the McHenry side of the village’s namesake lake. Among the first plaintiffs in 2006 was Hill’s childhood friend Brian DiBlasi, diagnosed two years prior with oligodendroglioma. Her friend and DiBlasi’s former neighbor, Denise Lambrechts, sued in February 2009 after doctors found a tumor on the lining of her brain.
When doctors that July diagnosed Hill’s older sister with a large pituitary gland tumor, like three of the other plaintiffs at the time, Hill decided to get involved. She called the McHenry County Department of Health’s long-criticized conclusion that there was no cluster “just plain wrong” and wanted an outside opinion.
“That’s when I said, ‘Enough, guys, what can we do now?’” Hill said.
On Aug. 12, 2009, Hill’s sister and three other plaintiffs sued, bringing the number to 27. Hill and County Board Chairman Ken Koehler, R-Crystal Lake, met the next morning with county staff and decided to consult with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The agency had reviewed the cancers in 2006 at the health department’s request and reached the identical conclusion that nothing was amiss.
The county’s plan lasted only several hours – Koehler learned from the Northwest Herald that a congressional subcommittee earlier that year harshly criticized the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s abilities, and alleged that the agency seeks to downplay toxic exposure concerns rather than address them.
Koehler then decided to ask for assistance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC agreed to help, but only by reviewing the work already done by the county health department and the Illinois Department of Public Health. While the county waited, three more plaintiffs joined the lawsuits – including a third childhood friend of Hill – bringing the total to 30.
The CDC concluded in a Feb. 2, 2010, letter that brain cancer rates were not above normal. Knowing that would not satisfy village residents, Koehler and Hill talked in July with environmental and occupational health experts at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who offered to “serve as neutral observers.”
That plan, too, did not last long – the newspaper revealed the next day that UIC had in fact been involved with the early days of the litigation. Plaintiffs’ attorney Aaron Freiwald had hired a UIC epidemiology professor to help develop a study, but she promptly quit after receiving a phone call from an expert and colleague retained by Rohm and Haas.
Counley, who had followed the efforts since his 2009 election, decided it was his turn to say that enough was enough.
Action, not words
Counley told Koehler and Hill that the time had come to do what should have been done with the first lawsuits in 2006: Test every well.
He told Koehler that he wanted an outside firm to sample village wells and air, with no involvement from the county, especially its health department, who he said had lost credibility on the issue.
“It got to the point where I didn’t care whose toes I stepped on, because I was bound and determined to get it done one way or the other,” Counley said.
With neither Counley nor Koehler willing to ask constituents to pay for testing, Koehler asked Rohm and Haas, which agreed in an Aug. 19, 2010, letter to pay up to $50,000 for water testing and $5,000 to test the air.
Water testing revealed a handful of wells with manmade volatile organic compounds, the chemical family that includes vinyl chloride, but at levels well below federal limits. Some, such as trichloroethylene, Styrene and methyl ethyl ketone, are found in the contamination plume coming from the Rohm and Haas plant.
Many had elevated levels of chloride, a compound linked to road salting and water softeners that the lawsuits allege came from the degradation of chemicals in the plume. Rohm and Haas attorney Kevin Van Wart scoffs at the theory and says that the tests are further proof that the water is safe and never was tainted by the company.
“It provides additional assurance that the water in McCullom Lake Village is clean and the air is clean, and with a lot of publicity about these lawsuits ... there has been some concern, and here is scientific data that should allay those concerns,” Van Wart said.
The village benefited at least one way from the lawsuits. Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a group founded by Counley to help the less fortunate maintain their homes, received $80,000 from a settlement with former defendant Modine Manufacturing. The lawsuits had named the Ringwood plant as a co-defendant until the company settled in 2008.
“We have got a lot more requests for assistance, financially and physically, and we’re doing everything we can to help all those people out. Neighbors Helping Neighbors is very busy right now, and that’s just great,” Counley said.
Counley has proceeded cautiously in dealing with the issue, seeking help for village residents wanting answers while respecting the plaintiffs and their allegations. He said he thinks about the plaintiffs a lot, and hopes they have their day in court. The first case, ended mid-trial by a judge who accused a plaintiff’s expert of fraudulent testimony, is on appeal.
“There obviously was something in the past. I don’t think we’re ever gonna know,” Counley said. “It’s way too coincidental for so many people to be affected in so small an area.”
• • •
“Coincidence or Cluster” is the Northwest Herald’s ongoing investigation of the McCullom Lake brain cancer lawsuits.