Aqua Illinois planned water rate hike contested by University Park, CUB

A utility watchdog and University Park officials are challenging a proposed increase by Aqua Illinois in water and sewer rates, with the village saying more needs to be done to help residents affected by high levels of lead in drinking water.

The Citizens Utility Board and village presented testimony recently to the Illinois Commerce Commission, challenging a proposed $19.2 million rate increase and saying it should be reduced by at least 40%.

CUB contends that, with the rate request, Aqua Illinois is pushing for an excessive profit rate for its shareholders.

Aqua Illinois said the proposed rate increase is the company’s first in 6½ years and that the additional revenue will go toward infrastructure enhancement projects that reduce the potential for outages and enhance the provision of reliable drinking and wastewater services.

“Aqua is fully committed to delivering reliable water to our customers in University Park, and the proposed rate case will not only improve the University Park water delivery system but will also strengthen water delivery infrastructure in additional communities across the state,” Dave Carter, Aqua Illinois’ president, said.

In testimony before the Illinois Commerce Commission, which is considering the proposed rate increase, University Park village manager Elizabeth Scott asked that Aqua fully reimburse residents for fixing or replacing lead solder in water service lines and plumbing fixtures inside homes.

Scott, in her Wednesday testimony, asked that Aqua’s rates be reduced rather than increased, and a moratorium on rate increases be imposed to compensate University Park residents for the inconvenience and potential health problems caused by high levels of lead in village water.

Aqua has said testing has shown water provided to University Park customers has met all state and federal benchmarks for nearly three years after elevated lead levels prompted a June 2019 “Do Not Consume” order in the village for Aqua-supplied water.

Scott told the commission about 2,000 customers of Aqua in her village suffered direct or indirect damages as a a result of the elevated lead levels.

Those customers “have lost their faith that Aqua has the ability to provide safe water,” she told the commission.

University Park was allowed last month by a Will County judge to intervene in a 2019 lawsuit filed against Aqua, and put off approving a proposed consent order ending the lawsuit.

Last October, Attorney General Kwame Raoul and Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow asked the court to approve a consent order after finding Aqua Illinois met the state lead action level over several six-month compliance sampling periods and developed an effective corrosion control treatment for the public water system.

The lawsuit accused Aqua of failing to provide safe drinking water, failing to comply with monitoring and sampling requirements, violating construction and operating permit requirements, and creating a public nuisance.

Aqua switched its water source to the Kankakee River and began adding a blended phosphate mix to the public water system to improve taste, according to the lawsuit. The change, the lawsuit alleges, is believed to have caused a chemical reaction that removed a protective layer in residential plumbing, causing elevated lead levels.

Although Aqua has taken steps to remedy the problem, Scott told the ICC the company “has lost any credibility and trust” with residents, and that in some University Park schools water fountains have been roped off to prevent students from using them.

“There is also concern about the long-term health effects on residents because they — and more importantly their children — have consumed water with high concentrations of lead,” Scott said.

Aqua changed how water drawn from the river was treated to eliminate the chemical reaction that caused lead to be dislodged.

However, the only permanent fix is removing lead-based solder from lines as well as fixtures inside homes, according to the company and village.

University Park said in cost estimates it’s received, that could mean a bill of $2,400 to more than $4,600 per home.

Under terms of the consent agreement, Aqua would pay, up to $2,000, for any work completed to fix the problem in individual homes.

Under the agreement, Aqua would fund an escrow account with up to $300,000 for the remediation of lead solder and any lead-containing fixtures found in kitchen faucets. Aqua would also pay an additional $200,000 in civil penalties.

Aqua would have the option to stop providing bottled water and filter devices, but has to ensure that customers within the most affected area of the village have access to bottled water and filter devices if sampling exceeds 15 parts per billion. Residents will still be able to request free monthly water testing of their kitchen cold water tap, according to the consent order.