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Tempers flare over water issues at Gillespie city council meeting

In response to ongoing contamination issues in their water supply, a large crowd of public members jam-packed the Gillespie Civic Center to voice their frustration at a July 11 city council meeting. Enquirer~Democrat/Coal Country Times photo by Jackson Wilson.

Enquirer~Democrat/Coal Country Times Reporter

In response to ongoing issues which have recently worsened, contamination issues in their water supply, public members jam-packed the Gillespie Civic Center to voice their frustration at a July 11 city council meeting.

The public comment session, which consisted of angry remarks, multiple interruptions and a ‘show and tell,’ lasted nearly an hour. There was additionally an explicit shouting match between an enraged citizen and a trio of city workers outside in the parking lot during executive session.
Dave Link, the owner of Lumpy’s Tavern, was the first to speak on behalf of the large crowd.

“Our ice is considered as food product,” Link said. “Our toilets look like someone has dumped in them, even when the water has settled. When we fill buckets to clean floors, it looks like a real weak iced tea. I would like to know what’s going on. We spent millions of dollars on new water lines.”
Link stated that the city should have looked into the installation of a new plant if the original one couldn’t handle the task of providing appropriate drinking water.

“I don’t know what the problem is, but if that was the case, that should have been done first,” Link said.

“I’m sick over this whole thing and I’m so sorry,” Dave Pickett water plant supervisor said in response to Link’s complaint. Pickett reported that the plant’s analyzer malfunctioned on Fourth of July weekend.

“I had no way of knowing what was going on,” Pickett said. “We couldn’t afford to just shut the plant down. We had to keep running it. We watched what we could. There’s a way you can tell if you’re getting enough color by watching the rapid mix, which we do all the time anyway. But, that was all we had to go off of. Otherwise, this machine does everything else for us and it wouldn’t do anything.”

Pickett said that he was eventually able to get in touch with someone from the Staunton Water Department, which provided him with a new piece of machinery, but the damage had already been done by the time he received the upgrade.

“Since then, we’ve gotten everything back on line,” Pickett said. “The water is leaving the plant good but the problem is that it is in the system and it’s going to be a while before we can get it cleared up.”

Unsure of the exact time for a noticeable change, Pickett said that the city was in the process of flushing hydrants during the day as a way to speed up the process.

“We normally don’t want to disturb something like that but drastic times call for drastic measures and we’re out here doing everything we can possibly think of to get this over with,” Pickett said.

“But this has been going on for months,” Link said, which drew applause from the public. “This has pretty well been going on since we got the new system, I think.”

Link then wanted to know why the water at his residence, located on the south end of town, was clear but not at the restuarant.

“I don’t have an explanation for that,” Pickett said. “I have the same thing at my house where it’s dark one minute, then’s it gone and then it’s dark again.”

“I’ve never had any dark water at my house but uptown here, I’ve been dealing with that for months and months,” Link said. “I shut my ice machine down and went and bought ice. I got a filter but I can’t keep that because it gets so dirty.”

Link referenced something he had seen online about a citizen, who was in attendance at the meeting, that put a white sock over her faucet and ‘it came out like someone had been playing in the mud with it.’

The crowd then started an uproar and mayor John Hicks had to slam his gavel to quiet things down.

A new resident that had just moved into Gillespie a couple months ago then stood up and said that the rumor of this issue starting July 4 was not true, which he added that everyone in attendance could attest to, and that the response of nobody knowing what was going on couldn’t be considered as an acceptable answer.

“I, or anyone else, can’t take that for why our water is not safe to drink, why my clothes are getting stained and why do I not feel safe to bathe,” he said. “We can’t just take ‘I don’t know what’s going on’ and call things good. Something needs to happen.”

“Some things that should have been taken care of earlier are being taken care of now as far as treating the lake to kill algae bloom,” Hicks said.

“So, are you telling me, as far as the actions that you say are being taken now, that our water will be clean, healthy and safe to consume from here on out?” asked the citizen.

“It should be,” Hicks responded. “I could show you a sample I went out and got today from the plant. It’s clear.”

“That’s awesome but we have samples from our sinks that say it is not,” the citizen argued.

In protest of water contamination issues within their community, frustrated Gillespie citizens brought in samples to the July 11 city council meeting at the Gillespie Civic Center. Enquirer~Democrat/Coal Country Times photo by Jackson Wilson.

Another citizen then held up a plastic bottle that he had filled to the brim with purple water. A woman later came forth and did a ‘show and tell’ of an extracted filter, which was covered with chrystallized elements and sealed in a large Ziploc bag.

Lifelong resident and Alderman Landon Pettit, also the new chairman of the Gillespie Water Department, said that this had been an issue for decades but the town was beginning to take certain steps to try and improve.

“I understand that when you hear that $10 million went into the ground and you’re still getting poor quality water, it angers you,” Pettit said as he addressed the public. “You all have the right to be mad. I live in this town with my wife and kids and we all have to use this water too. I feel everybody’s frustration.”

“We all do,” Alderman Wendy Rolando said. “We all live here too. We’re just as frustrated. Believe me.”

Pettit described Gillespie’s plant as ‘unique’ and that it was originally designed to treat well water, also known as groundwater.

“That’s one of the hardest waters to treat and maintain, especially in this part of Illinois,” Pettit said.

“In order to treat groundwater, which we have 100 percent of coming into the lake, you have to use a variety of techniques and technologies in order to take care of all the issues you have been faced with,” added city treasurer Dan Fisher.

Pettit said the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had notified the city of a possible intake separation. After divers had discovered there wasn’t one present, the investigation began working its way back towards the plan itself. It turned out that the filters hadn’t been changed in the right amount of time and were one-and-a-half and or two years overdue.

“We were still getting safe numbers on the plant by the EPA standards,” Pettit said. “We were just throwing a lot of chemical additives in.”

The city started working backwards on the chemicals in an attempt to lessen it up, but was still having problems, according to Pettit. At that point, a new plant operator (Pickett) was called in to take the reigns.

“Dave had 16 years of experience at that plant,” Pettit said of Pickett. “He came in and was thrown into a complete mess.”

Pettit believed that the water was improving, in a sense, but remained aware that the goal was far from achieved. He added that the current season was additionally an obstacle in keeping the progression consistent.

“Water is hard to treat, especially during summertime in Illinois,” Pettit said. “That’s because we don’t have a moving intake. Our intake stays in one spot so if the lake flips, algae blooms and we’re going to catch it every time. We did not get a chance to treat the lake like we normally do. It went way further into the season than we wanted it to because of the rain. By that point, it was so hot that it would have been no good if we dumped the chemical in there.”

Another problem, per Pettit, was the plant simply being outdated by ‘20 years, maybe 30 or more.’

“There’s been a lot of updates but we are nowhere near what Litchfield or Staunton has,” Pettit said. “They do reverse osmosis.”

A citizen asked whether there was any talk of the city potentially upgrading the system to match those two towns.

“To do that, you’re talking millions and millions of dollars, similar to what the water line project cost,” Pettit said.

Pettit added that he and Hicks had begun discussing added searches for grants that would help improve the plant further. Last year, the city got to the point where a major upgrade to the plant started to take off, according to Pettit.

“We’re talking almost $700,000 worth of upgrades,” Pettit said. “That was part of the $10 million water line project.”

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 and issues within the supply chains, the city was unable to gain access to all of the parts necessary to complete the full upgrade.

“We have parts stacked up out there that can’t be installed because they don’t have the rest of the pieces,” Pettit said.

Pettit gave a brief description of the water purification process, which ‘takes longer because the system is older style.’

“When they turn the pumps on out at the lake, it takes nine hours for the water to get to town,” Pettit said. “Once it gets to the plant, we sample it. Once sampled, they then decide how much chemical we have to have, because it changes constantly. At that point, they adjust the chemical rates. It takes four hours to find out whether the adjustments you make are right or wrong.”

“Most of the time it’s right, but here’s the problem,” continued Pettit. “If your analyzer goes down, you can’t tell. Every adjustment you make, you could be going to wrong way and you won’t know for four hours.”

Pettit said he wasn’t going to blame any of the operators, former or present.

“This particular time, it was mechanical failure which caused a chemical overfeed,” Pettit said.

When shown the bagged filter, Pettit said that that was what had been causing crystals to form when it contacted chlorine.

Pettit reported that the plant’s filters had been replaced and two analyzers were now installed.

“We now have doubles of every machine in that laboratory,” Pettit said. “If something was to go wrong, we have another one right there.”
Pettit added that the lake had been treated earlier in the afternoon and that the city was planning on having that done three times a year moving forward, whether it was needed or not.

With more parts starting to arrive, Pettit is hopeful that the city can start on a new system within the next couple of months.

“It’s not like it’s fully automated,” Pettit said. “They still need to have human bodies there to treat the water and run the system. However, they can monitor it remotely if they have to. There’s certain hours at night when the plant doesn’t run, but any of the operators can get on there and see what’s going on, even during those times. That will also help us identify problems faster. We’re moving in that direction.”

“The most important thing to remember is that it takes a long time to do these projects, in part because we can’t just shut down to work on something,” Fisher said. “That plant has to stay in operation the whole time because water demand is so high. Even if we had another system tied onto it, one of the issues you would run into with that is this. If they’re using a different chemical mix or treatment mix then we use, it’s really difficult to maintain a consistent product when you blend that water.”

Pettit said that the city would increase its amount of public meetings if needed, as long as the community increased its participation in terms of attending and sharing ideas, such as ones regarding future grants.

“When we have public meetings, we’re lucky if one or two people show up,” Pettit said. “If we’re going to put in the effort, I would like you to be there with us to do this. Believe it or not, if you have your community behind you, it helps. The more people, the better.”

Pettit reiterated that he wanted the city to look into putting a social media page together.

“If anything, not so much about the comments, but rather the ability to get information out faster,” Pettit said. “It has been a failure to not alert the public. In the future, that’s something we will work on.”

“The water problem is being addressed and hopefully you all will see a difference within the next couple of days or weeks,” Hicks said.

Unable to maintain their patience any longer, a couple of citizens took some verbal jabs at the council as public comment wrapped up. One woman called some of the members ‘rude.’ Her husband angrily pointed his finger and argued with Hicks while another citizen yelled, “You should be done for good” at the Gillespie mayor.

“You want to come up and take my job?” Hicks asked in response.

“No, I don’t want your job,” the citizen replied. “You ran for it. So, do it.”

Business items

The council approved a motion that allowed Feely Tree Service to remove trees at the 504 and 108 properties on Park Street.

The council passed a pair of resolutions for Carlinville Glass Cutters (TIF) and the City of Gillespie (payment).

Fisher will be representing the council at the Illinois Municipal League Conference in Chicago. The event will take place the second week of September.

In other business, the council approved pest control bids and an update to its ordinance book.

Police Chief’s report

The briefing report for the month of June read $868.97 in court fines, $100 in ordinance violations and $1,315.11 in other miscellaneous amounts for a grand total of $2,284.08.

The Gillespie Police Department additionally received a $100 donation.

Next meeting

The Gillespie city council meets Mon., Aug. 8 at 6 p.m. in the Gillespie Civic Center.