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McQueary: Crestwood ridicules tainted water concerns

Abby Sarenwho has non-Hodgkin's lymphomgives her daughter Savannah some water kitchen their Crestwood  home Wednesday March 2 2011. She

Abby Sarena, who has non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, gives her daughter, Savannah, some water in the kitchen of their Crestwood home on Wednesday March 2, 2011. She now uses only bottled or filtered water | Sun-Times Media~Matt Marton

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April 5 Election

Crestwood incumbents: Louis Presta, William Wagner, Frank J. Gassmere

Challengers: Patricia Theresa Flynn, John Toscas

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Updated: November 24, 2011 3:34AM



For a village sufficiently lawyered-up after accusations surfaced it served contaminated water to its residents, the latest Crestwood newsletter takes an aggressive approach, calling concern a “manufactured issue.”

The village in its March newsletter includes a front-page notice called “Facts, not fiction,” about the water issue. Compiled by a former village employee, the newsletter cherry-picks parts of an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency report and claims “media frenzy, subsequent exploitive legal and political actions” fueled a non-issue — that being the reality that Crestwood for nearly a decade blended Lake Michigan water with an old well that tested positive for a cancer-causing agent.

The article does not include a byline. It relies on numerics from the environmental agency that “the level of vinyl chloride found in the Crestwood public water system was less than 50 percent of the legal limit of 2 (parts per billion). So much for this manufactured threat.”

The numbers are accurate. The IEPA has not claimed that the findings of vinyl chloride in the Crestwood well exceeded levels considered “safe” in a public water supply, although other states and environmental groups say any level is too high.

The point is, municipalities are expected to avoid harmful chemicals, not purposely tap into old wells to save money when a better water supply is available to them, which essentially is what Crestwood did — and then mislead the state, according to environmental officials.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued the village in May 2009, followed by a series of investigations from state and federal officials. No one has been criminally charged, but the village settled for nominal amounts with residents who filed claims.

Other personal injury cases are pending, including one from 29-year-old Abby Sarena, whose latest tests show no cancer in her body. She was diagnosed in 2006 with Stage 5 non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer scientists believe can be linked to environmental causes. She discovered a lump in her neck while pregnant but had to wait until after delivery to treat it. By then, the cancer had spread to her uterus, chest, lungs and pelvis.

Sarena is upset with how village officials handled the water situation.

“You want to punch them in the gut,” the mother of five daughters said. “I count my blessings, but I cry when I hear of someone else getting cancer.”

She’s also disturbed by Crestwood’s latest public relations move.

The creator of the village newsletter is former village service-director Frank Gassmere. Gassmere has been intimately involved in the water inquiries because he, along with longtime Mayor Chester Stranczek, ran the town like drill sergeants during the time the state claims the water was contaminated.

Gassmere retired in May 2005 after 32 years. He remains on the payroll as a consultant. His son, Frank J. Gassmere, is a village trustee who is up for re-election April 5.

Can you say, “conflict of interest?” Of course the elder Gassmere would strive to downplay the water issue and discredit those who raise it.

What’s more disturbing is that village officials named at the top of the newsletter — Mayor Robert Stranczek, Clerk Nancy Benedetto and Trustees Ronald Wasag, James Fowler, Louis Presta, Victor Hirsch, William Wagner and the younger Gassmere — approved the article, which was compiled by a highly subjective source one month before local elections. It was funded by taxpayers while lawsuits filed by sick residents are pending.

No one knows whether the water caused cancer. No one. Environmental causes of cancer remain a mystery, even among medical scientists who study them. The derivation in Crestwood’s cases will be up to the courts to decide.

And that’s precisely why the village had no right to publicly ridicule the concerns of residents who fear it might have caused their disease.

The environmental report accuses Crestwood officials of ignoring the agency’s warnings in 2007, 12 years after the agency flagged the chemical in its well water. The village led the agency to believe it was switching to lake water, and the village lied about well use, according to the state.

Yet on Wednesday, village services director Bill Graffeo haughtily defended the newsletter as “an article just like what newspapers do. They manufacture what people say. Is it OK for them?

“There are things I can’t talk about, things going through court,” he added.

He took issue with items presented as fact by the state but would not elaborate.

Even I would not defend the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which is equally to blame for Crestwood’s water problem. But the flippant, defensive tone oozing from Crestwood officials is beyond troubling.

On April 5, voters can elect two new faces to the village board. Patricia Theresa Flynn and John Toscas face incumbents Presta, Wagner and Gassmere.

Frankly, I have no idea if Flynn and Toscas would change Crestwood’s notoriously non-transparent government.

But I have to believe anything is better than the arrogance residents are getting now.



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