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.
SYCAMORE, ILLINOIS, WATER CRISIS EXPLAINED
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.
CITY FAILED TO RESPOND TO RESIDENTS’ CONCERN
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.
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.
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.
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.