Case Status
Case Caption
Campbell v. City of Sycamore
U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois
Case Number
City of Sycamore
File Date

Residents of Sycamore, Illinois sued the city in a class action alleging that the city of Sycamore created a public health crisis through decades of negligence. The lawsuit states that the city allowed its water system to corrode and deteriorate to where hundreds of residents lacked one of life's most basic needs: clean water.


Many Sycamore residents reported chronic health issues related to exposure to the city's water. Cancer rates have been high, and some Sycamore residents have suffered from strange brain issues, the lawsuit states. Some young girls have reported losing hair, while other children exposed to the city's water exhibit abnormally aggressive behavior. Long-term effects can be worse, especially among children. Ingesting lead can hamper brain development and lead to impaired hearing, reduced physical height and learning disabilities.

According to the lawsuit, the overwhelming stench, taste and health risks of the municipal water forced residents to cook and brush their teeth with bottled water. They also used bottled water for drinking, and some residents have gone so far as to use disposable plates and utensils due to the city water’s shocking ability to stain clothes, dishes and more with its reported red-orange color. As for its odor, it allegedly smelled like sewage. Simply showering could stink up an entire home, attorneys say.


As the lawsuit notes, when Sycamore residents voiced concern over the safety of the city’s water in 2016, the city repeatedly replied that its water was up to Environmental Protection Agency standards and that the source of the problem was household water heaters or other home fixtures. This led some residents to purchase new appliances and other expensive replacement products, to no avail. In fact, the amount of lead in Sycamore's water supply was well beyond safe levels, and the city was aware that its system was in serious need of updating. 

The city of Sycamore consistently delayed maintenance. The mains deteriorated to the point where large amounts of iron are present in the city’s water supply, the complaint states. And when iron interacts with chlorine that the city treats its water supply with, it creates waterborne bacteria, which further imperiled residents’ health.


Settlement Reached

On Jan. 27, 2023, the parties in the lawsuit reached a settlement bringing various forms of relief to the residents of Sycamore, Illinois:

  • The city of Sycamore will dedicate an average annual allotment of $1.2 million to water infrastructure improvement projects through 2027. Information and further details will be provided to the public through city council meetings.

  • Sycamore water will be independently tested for lead and chlorine for three years at 50 different sites. The lab will provide to residents an information sheet. Test results will be publicly published on the city’s website for 30 days upon completion.

The plaintiffs in the case, Jennifer Campbell and Jeremy Pennington, have devoted considerable time and energy to litigating this lawsuit over the past two years, and the firm is thankful for their efforts and the personal sacrifices to fight for clean water in Sycamore. In the settling of this lawsuit, aside from the case’s two plaintiffs, no current or former resident has given up any of their legal rights to any future litigation.

Further details are available in the settlement agreement and water test results:

Settlement Agreement »

Water Test Results »

Significance of Test Results

As part of the litigation process, the City of Sycamore agreed to retain an independent lab to conduct water quality testing at 53 homes in Sycamore during August and September 2022. Download »

Regarding the chlorine test results:

Illinois law and EPA rules requires Sycamore to provide “[c]ontinuous chlorination,” monitor chlorine residual . . . at different points in the distribution system,” and to maintain a “minimum free chlorine residual of 0.5 mg/L or a minimum combined chlorine residual of 1.0 mg/L . . . in all active parts of the distribution system at all times.”  Download Complying with the Ground Water Rule: Small Entity Compliance Guide (EPA) »

Illinois requires a minimum chlorine residual in the water system to disinfect the water and prevent a number of problems that could otherwise occur, such as increased biofilm growth, the replication of viruses and bacteria, or the prevalence of foul tastes, putrid odors, and rusty sediment. Inadequate levels of chlorine in drinking water distribution systems can also increase the risk of exposure to pathogens such as Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease.

Of the 53 homes tested in Sycamore, 47 failed to meet the minimum free chlorine residual of 0.5 mg/L, as required by Illinois law. Many homes showed extremely low levels (below 0.1 mg/L), and many showed no chlorine at all. 

Regarding the lead test results:

The EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule requires that municipal water systems’ monitor lead concentrations in the drinking water at customer taps. If lead concentrations exceed an “action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb) or a “trigger level” of 10 ppb in more than 10% of customer taps sampled, the system must undertake a number of additional actions to control corrosion. The 90th percentile of lead levels in Sycamore’s water quality results from the 53 homes tested was 8.2 ppb. 

While this means that the City complied with the Lead and Copper Rule, it is important to note that this does not necessarily mean the water is “safe.”  The “EPA has set the maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water at zero because lead is a toxic metal that can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels. Lead is persistent, and it can bioaccumulate in the body over time.” Download Basic Information about Lead in Drinking Water (EPA) »

Case Update

On June 13, 2022, Magistrate Judge Lisa A. Jensen held a conference with the parties to discuss the possibility of settlement. Generally, settlement conferences are confidential, so we cannot disclose what happened and what was said. We can report, however, that the Court has scheduled another settlement conference for August 26, 2022. In the interim, the case has been stayed—or effectively paused—pending water-quality testing of a sample of homes by an independent company.

Case Update

On March 25, 2022, Judge Franklin Valderrama transferred this case from the Eastern Division of the Northern District of Illinois (in Chicago) to the Western Division of the Northern District of Illinois (in Rockford). As a result, District Judge Iain D. Johnston and Magistrate Judge Lisa A. Jensen will now be presiding over the case in Rockford, Illinois. On April 19, 2022, Magistrate Judge Jensen publicly ordered the parties to exchange letters related to settlement. Plaintiffs have submitted their letter outlining their initial offer of settlement to the City, and now await a response from the City, due May 6, 2022. Judge Jensen has also set a status conference for May 17, 2022, to discuss the parties’ letters and the potential value of a settlement conference. Plaintiffs believe they have made a reasonable and fair settlement proposal, and remain hopeful that a resolution can be reached out-of-court, which would allow the City to preserve funds and resources that would otherwise be spent on litigation to instead be used for improving Sycamore’s water system. We look forward to seeing the City’s response.

Concurrently, the parties are moving forward with discovery in the litigation, including review of documents produced by parties and non-parties, and taking depositions.

Case Update

For much of the past year, the parties have been engaged in the discovery phase, exchanging relevant documents and evidence.

The exchange and review of these documents takes time. Depositions of city employees and other witnesses will account for much of the remaining discovery period. Depositions should begin in the spring.

Regarding the recently announced lead service line replacement program offered by the city, this was not a direct result of anything that happened in the lawsuit. While Hagens Berman still has some questions and concerns, we believe it is a positive development and urge eligible residents to contact the city. If you do not know if you have a lead service line leading into your home, this can be confirmed by a simple scratch test or by a licensed plumber.

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