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posted: 7/1/2012 8:37 PM

Editorial: Dangers to health and the public's right to know

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Daily Herald Editorial Board

One day last week, Daily Herald Staff Writer Eric Peterson received a tip that hundreds of thousands of gallons of sludge leaked from the John E. Egan Water Reclamation Plant outside Schaumburg.

That same day, Daily Herald Staff Writer Josh Stockinger reported that a DuPage judge was ordering the head of the state health department to appear or face a contempt charge because the agency is not disclosing information about probes into potential elder abuse at three nursing homes. The department says federal rules prevent them from sharing.

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The secrecy must stop. Perhaps there are reasons in the nursing home cases for some information to be withheld, but it's difficult to imagine why it all must be. In both cases, lives and the health of our environment are at stake.

The sludge tip was true. A pipe broke and 1.8 million gallons of partially treated sludge from a Des Plaines facility leaked around the edge of the plant near Schaumburg. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago properly notified the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency within 24 hours of the leak's discovery and followed up five days later with a required written report.

But that's where the notification and communication ended. That's where it ended, that is, until Peterson was tipped off.

The Daily Herald learned of the leak seven days after it occurred. Seven days late. The village of Schaumburg and the Schaumburg Park District, which operates Olympic Park near the leak site, learned about the leak from the Daily Herald. The public, and the water district's taxpaying funders, learned about the leak from the Daily Herald.

This lack of public disclosure is simply outrageous.

Bruce Yurdin, manager of field offices of the IEPA's water bureau, said the sludge can be "quite toxic" to aquatic life. Most of it leaked into a quarry on the district's property, but a smaller amount traveled into a section of the Salt Creek also on the district's property. How much of 1.8 million gallons is a smaller amount, we do not know. Water district officials said as much of the sludge as possible was recovered and disposed of properly. Are we to believe them?

In the case of the nursing homes, it's highly unusual for a judge to call a bureaucrat from another agency into her courtroom to explain his agency's lack of cooperation and communication. A health department spokeswoman emailed Stockinger that "federal regulations limit the department's authority to disclose certain survey documents."

Is this really how our government agencies operate? How often? We are left to wonder how much sludge went where? How many of our loved ones might have been abused in what nursing homes? Abused how? And for how long?

Our right to know also has been abused. This is untenable.

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