A look back: DeKalb and its radium water


25 years ago, residents of DeKalb organized to pressure the city to reduce the amount of radium in our drinking water. The city, which already had obtained a variance that allowed it to exceed EPA limits for radium, required a second variance in 1996 to obtain permits to extend water mains for new construction. This presented an opportunity to argue for a higher standard for the long-term health of the community. Upon discovering the Illinois Pollution Control Board regulations allowed for citizens to request public hearings, that’s what they did. Here’s the letter to the editor that Linda Lahey wrote to alert her neighbors of the upcoming public hearing:


And here is the city’s rebuttal, two days later:


This was city government attacking an individual who disagreed with its policy, and the newspaper of record approving the hostilities. The double betrayal must have been devastating at the time. But the residents persisted. They filed suit against the city in December 2016 and, just shy of a year later, they won.

DeKalb took out two Illinois EPA loans in 2002 totaling $7.1 million for radium remediation and they are still Water Fund budget items. At the end of 2020, the principal left on the loans was just shy of $240,000.

More: Minutes of EPA and Illinois Pollution Control Board Meetings

Pollution Control Board, August 1996

Pollution Control Board, September 1996

EPA Radionuclide Stakeholder Meeting, December 1997

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