Guilty of Tainted Well Water

Wednesday, May 1, 2013 @ 03:05 PM gHale

A former suburban Chicago water official faces serious jail time after her conviction Monday for lying about secretly mixing carcinogen-tainted well water into the Crestwood village drinking supply.

Longtime water department supervisor Theresa Neubauer, 55 showed no emotion Monday as a judge read the guilty verdict on all 11 counts.

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Neubauer, who is on paid leave as Crestwood’s police chief, was found guilty of making false statements to environmental regulators. Each of the 11 counts carries a maximum five-year prison term. The judge set a tentative sentencing date of Oct. 2.

From 1982 until the allegations arose in 2008, the village mixed the tainted well water with cleaner but pricier water from Lake Michigan, prosecutors said. Officials kept pumping the polluted water even after environmental officials warned in the mid-1980s that cancer-causing chemicals were in the well, prosecutors have said.

The reason behind the mixing of the water is, prosecutors said, because the leaders in the 11,000-resident village about 20 miles south of Chicago hoped to score political points with voters by pointing to low water rates and bragging about how they were fiscally responsible stewards. By drawing the well water, they saved around $400,000 annually.

It was after reports by the Chicago Tribune in 2008 that investigations launched — eventually leading to the charges against Neubauer and one other official. Frank Scaccia, 61, Crestwood’s certified water operator, changed his plea to guilty earlier this month to one count of making false statements and faces a maximum five-year prison term.

Neubauer repeated Monday what her lawyer had told jurors during the trial: Officials higher up the chain of command devised and carried out the plot to divert a percentage of well water into the village’s supply.

“I was unknowingly sucked into it,” she said. Despite being the longtime supervisor of Crestwood’s water department, she described her role as little more than a clerk.

She apologized to Crestwood’s residents but quickly qualified the apology.

“I would also like to add that it was none of my decision,” she said.

During closings Friday, a prosecutor said Neubauer was part of the Crestwood government’s inner circle and signed forms for years indicating no well water was drawn.

“She told lie after lie, month after month, year after year,” Tim Chapman said.

But defense attorney Thomas Breen questioned how Neubauer could have possibly known about the tainted water when she herself took showers in and drank the same water, and when she made oatmeal for her children with the water.

Prosecutors at trial did not directly raise the issue of how contaminated the well water was and whether it made residents sick. Instead, they focused on the narrower issue of whether Neubauer lied about the use of well water.

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