Nicor dumped tons of carcinogenic wastewater into farm fields above aquifer recharge zones

TROY GROVE, Ill. (WCIA) — Lab tests from wells near Nicor Gas’ oldest underground natural gas storage facility detected alarming levels of benzene, a chemical known to cause cancer.

In a violation notice issued in December 2019, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency alleged the state’s largest natural gas company broke the law and threatened the quality of groundwater when it dumped the carcinogenic wastewater into the soil.

Federal safety standards set the limit of benzene at five parts per billion. According to lab tests obtained in a Target 3 investigation, the benzene found in eight Nicor Gas wells exceeded federal safety standards for three consecutive months. One test conducted in February of 2019 detected 26,000 parts of benzene per billion, an astounding 5,200 times higher than legally allowed.

In an emailed statement, the company said it discovered benzene during regular monthly testing and reported it immediately the state’s environmental regulators.

“Nicor Gas and the IEPA have been unable to identify the source of the benzene,” spokeswoman Jennifer Golz wrote on Wednesday. “Benzene is not a chemical that we use in our processes.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, benzene “is a natural part of crude oil, gasoline,” and is a widely produced industrial chemical often associated with underground storage sites.

Gas companies like Nicor, a subsidiary of Southern Company Gas, routinely pipe fracked gas in from out of state before storing it deep underground in naturally occurring aquifers. Industry experts say the chemical liquids used in hydraulic fracturing are often kept secret as proprietary information, but several health studies and news reports have documented widespread use of benzene in fracking fluids.

Nicor maintains eight underground storage facilities in Northern Illinois, often located in sparsely populated rural areas. Each facility stores highly pressurized bubbles of gas deep underground, displacing the water from sandstone. Upon withdrawing the gas back out of the ground, the company must “rinse” or dehydrate the “wet gas” to separate it from the rest of the chemicals and groundwater that were mixed in with it throughout the production and storage process before it can distribute the methane to homes and businesses.

The leftover wastewater that is removed from the methane contains toxic chemicals, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, often referred to as BTEX. At its seven other storage sites in Illinois, Nicor maintains and operates Class-II underground injection controlled storage wells where it disposes of the wastewater hundreds of feet underground in formations that are designed to prevent the chemicals from reaching soil or drinking water.

Initially, instead of seeking a state permit with the Department of Natural Resources for a storage well at its oldest facility, the company opted for a faster, cheaper solution, which amounted to a labyrinth of drainage ditches.

“What Nicor decided to do was — and we don’t even know how deep it was, we’re assuming like 10 or 12 feet — they went out and dug trenches, laid perforated tile out through these farmer’s fields,” said Jim Stephens, a former field manager with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Oil and Gas Division. “And basically, [Nicor] was just dumping the water into these perforated tiles, letting it saturate out into the ground.”

According to permit applications obtained in a Target 3 investigation, Nicor planned to dump the benzene-laden wastewater out into farmland through a series of perforated tiles. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency granted Nicor special permission to dump wastewater out into farm fields through underground trenches, despite the fact those fields sit directly above drinking water aquifer recharge zones.

“There was no containment,” Stephens said. “When I contacted IEPA — I contacted my counterpart the day after I found out about all this and had the test results — his comment was, ‘Oh crap. That is an aquifer recharge zone.’ Basically, anything that’s that gets on the surface or subsurface, goes straight down into the drinking water aquifers of that area.”

Were it allowed to continue, experts say the state’s decision could have carried fatal consequences.

“Benzene is linked to leukemia, cancer of the blood,” explained Dr. Catherine Murphy, the head chemist at the University of Illinois. “When you ingest benzene as a human, your body tries to metabolize it. So then it makes like these derivatives of benzene, and then those are the things that cause all kinds of problems.”

She said the chemical poses a threat to humans whether it is ingested, inhaled, or introduced to the body through physical contact.

After three consecutive months of elevated benzene levels appearing in test results between December 2018 and February 2019, Nicor suddenly stopped dumping the water out into the ground and began hauling the toxic water off site to inject it in underground wells in Hodgkins, Illinois, and Dolton, Illinois.

Residents nearby complained to local health officials about the increased traffic of large trucks coming into and out of the facility. Brine hauler logs and truck manifests obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show the company carried 4.5 million gallons of carcinogenic wastewater off the premises from March to May of 2019.

In a December 2019 violation notice, the Illinois EPA warned Nicor it would report the company to the Office of the Attorney General if it did not stop dumping the wastewater into the farm fields, and ordered Nicor to open an investigation into itself, later explaining that the agency lacked the manpower to conduct the investigation on its own.

In a 198-page report surveying the scope of the pollution, analysts hired by Nicor Gas essentially argued that the benzene had largely evaporated or dissipated on its own, and downplayed the likelihood that any existing benzene still in the soil could pose an active risk to homeowners nearby.

However, inspectors and chemical experts who reviewed the study cast doubt on the company’s explanation, warning benzene is a durable chemical that can linger in the environment.

“That really doesn’t make any sense,” said Dr. Catherine Murphy, the head chemist at the University of Illinois. “It’s not like it’s just gonna magically sink somewhere and somehow never be found.”

“It’ll be generally true that the molecules will stick to the soil particles,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s still there.”

If benzene did make its way into drinking water, LaSalle County Public Health Director Chris Pozzi said, “that would give us a great deal of concern. And we would be working with the Department of Public Health and probably the EPA to try and determine geographically if this water had spread, you know, off property or to other water wells.”

To date, Pozzi and her department have not yet conducted lab tests of the private water wells near the area, although staff in her office have identified wells nearby that could be at risk.

“We have not done any sampling there,” Pozzi said on Wednesday, adding that the Illinois Department of Public Health “did not feel it was necessary.”

However, emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show her staff discussed the benzene issue with state employees at the Illinois Department of Public Health four months ago, and requested that tests be conducted on private water wells.

The Illinois EPA said Nicor’s report remains “under review,” and has not determined yet whether the company could face a fine for the pollution.

“The Illinois EPA is still reviewing the matter to determine the most appropriate resolution,” agency spokeswoman Kim Biggs said in an email. “One option is to ask the Attorney General’s Office to handle this matter, which could involve seeking both a civil penalty and technical relief.”

“Attorney General Raoul is committed to taking actions to protect the health and wellbeing of Illinois residents and our environment,” spokeswoman Annie Thompson said. “Our office has not received referrals from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency or the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.”

In a compliance commitment agreement, the company agreed to install a treatment system and a filter separator to remove the benzene and other hazardous chemicals out of the wastewater before a deadline of November 1st, 2020. Nicor Gas also applied for an underground storage well to dispose of the wastewater. Construction is supposed to be completed before a deadline of January 1st, 2021.