InTeGrate Modules and Courses >Mapping the Environment with Sensory Perception > Unit 4: Case Study Analysis > Case Study 3: My Water Smells (and Tastes) Like Gasoline!
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Case Study 3: My Water Smells (and Tastes) Like Gasoline!


Compiled and modified for instructional use by: Mike Phillips, Illinois Valley Community College, mike_phillips@ivcc.edu

Wedron, Illinois — LUST, dust, and other sensory impacts

This case study is an examination of the chemical and sensory impacts of a variety of environmental issues including sand mining, leaking underground gasoline storage tanks (LUSTs), and a railroad.

Wedron is a small, unincorporated town of approximately 100 residents in north central Illinois. A large sand mine has been in operation on the south and west sides of the town for many decades, and the mine property includes several abandoned and active pits, a processing plant, and a train car loading facility. Railroad tracks are located along the east side of town as is a grain elevator (storage and loading facility).

The following information was obtained from the US EPA web site about Wedron, personal visits to the town, and published news articles.

In April 1982, Illinois EPA began a groundwater investigation in Wedron after the Illinois Department of Public Health received complaints from several residents of gasoline-type odors in their private well water. Illinois EPA collected groundwater samples from several private wells in April 1982, June 1983, and August 1983, and confirmed the presence of chemicals found in gasoline. At that time, a new deeper well was drilled to provide clean drinking water to the affected homes. In addition, an investigation of several potential sources of contamination was completed, one possible source, an old gasoline station, was identified, and the gas station property was cleaned up.

In 2011, residents of Wedron reported gasoline odors from their water. As a result, the Illinois Department of Public Health collected groundwater samples in October 2011 and found two homes with benzene levels above the health standard. In November 2011, the LaSalle County Health Department told these residents to no longer drink or use their well water. Illinois EPA then contacted the US EPA, which began the current investigation. Beginning in December 2011 and continuing through 2015, the US EPA collected groundwater samples from residential and commercial wells in the town. These samples were tested for the presence of a family of chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), semi-volatile organic compounds and metals. A cluster of wells were found to be contaminated with VOCs commonly associated with gasoline. Residences with wells showing contaminant levels above drinking water standards were first provided with a filtration system and then connected to wells drilled into a deeper, uncontaminated aquifer. The US EPA identified several possible sources, including abandoned underground gasoline storage tanks and former gasoline stations (including the previously identified one), and began working with the responsible parties to develop a cleanup plan.

The sand mine and attendant facilities had a role in altering the direction of groundwater flow, and leaking gasoline storage tanks were found on the property; however, the contamination found in the residential wells was not linked to the sources at the sand mine's facility. The investigation did reveal community concerns about silica dust associated with the mine, and an investigation of those concerns was begun.

In the early months of 2013, environmental activist Erin Brockovich and associates from the law firm where she works were contacted and began working with some local residents to ensure that the groundwater contamination was removed.

Discussion Questions:

  • What is the problem?
  • What might have caused the problem?
  • How did the problem come to the attention of local residents? Local government officials? The state and US EPAs?
  • What data would you want to assess and address the problem?

Data Sources for Group Analysis and Presentation Activity:

The following data sources each provide information about gasoline (and other) contamination in Wedron, Illinois.

  1. US EPA Reports: In 2011, the US EPA began site investigations based on reports from the Illinois Department of Public Health. This site contains updates for the community as well as the results of analytical testing of the groundwater and a description of remedial solutions.
    • Preferred resources from this site:
      • Photo gallery: use photos of Underground Storage Tanks (USTs)
      • Fact Sheets dated June 2013, February 2013, and October 2012
      • Technical documents
        • Site Investigation Report Hoxsey Property (PDF ) (298pp, 10.3MB) December 2013
          • p. 1–26 (main body of report)
          • p. 36–44 (color maps)
          • p. 263 and 269 (color photos of contaminated and clean sand; contaminated sand is green while clean sand is white)
        • Potential Source and Water Table Elevation Contour (PDF) (1 pg, 401K)
        • Water Table Elevation Contour Map (PDF) (1 pp, 574K)
        • Conceptual Geologic Cross-Section of Wedron — Illustration of a geologic cross section using well information at the Thompson Park in Wedron, Illinois (PDF) (1 pg, 597K) September 2012
        • Potentiometric Surface Map, Wedron Groundwater Site (PDF) (4pp, 177K) November 2012
  2. Local Public Radio news reports
    • Northern Public Radio reports
      • Small Town Consumed By Toxic Water Mess; April 29, 2013
      • Small Town Attracts Big Name To Help With Toxic Water Mess; March 14, 2013
  3. Local newspaper articles
    1. Environmental scientist calls Wedron water pollution an 'emergency', an article from MyWebTimes by Steve Stout
    2. Wedron residents file suit over groundwater contamination, an article from MyWebTimes by Steve Stout
  4. Environmental activist Erin Brockovich and the law firm with which she is associated became involved in 2013 and filed a lawsuit on behalf of some of the residents in 2014.
    1. Wedron, Illinois website from Erin Brockovich
  5. US EPA Envirofacts map and data (Enter "Wedron, IL" in search box.)

Post-Group Analysis/Presentation Reflection:

  1. What data/information is most likely to be used to make decisions about cleanup?
  2. What data/information is most likely to get the attention of the impacted residents?
  3. What data/information is the most difficult to quantify?
  4. What data were excluded? Why do you think the EPA chose to use the data it did?

Additional resources:

Documentary: The Price of Sand

  • The movie touches on a variety of sensory inputs related to mining

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »