The utility company responsible for a water system failure that left residents and businesses in and around Hawthorn Woods without drinkable water for days last month publicly apologized Monday.
Representatives from Aqua Illinois and its parent company admitted their team didn’t recognize the severity of the emergency and didn’t effectively communicate with customers and local officials.
“(I) want to convey that I own this, along with our operators at the base level,” Colleen M. Arnold, president of the Aqua division of Essential Utilities, told a large crowd during a special Hawthorn Woods village board meeting at St. Matthew Lutheran Church. “There are things we couldn’t control … but what we could control was our response.”
Aqua Illinois President David Carter was contrite as well, especially when it came to the company’s occasionally inaccurate messages to customers during the crisis. They included initial ones that incorrectly blamed the problem on the summer’s drought and increased water usage by customers.
“It was a real critical lapse on our part that you all weren’t kept more informed as this event went on,” Carter said.
Aqua officials also acknowledged the company didn’t recognize the severity of the crisis for two days. That delayed its responses, from delivering bottled water to residents to restoring service.
Monday’s three-hour meeting was held at the church because officials anticipated the audience would be too large for the board’s usual meeting space.
The company-owned water system, based at a plant in Hawthorn Woods, failed July 2.
An estimated 1,200 residential and commercial customers in Hawthorn Woods, Kildeer and nearby unincorporated areas were advised to boil water before drinking or cooking with it; hundreds couldn’t even do that because they had no running water.
In a prepared statement at the start of Monday’s meeting, Mayor Dominick DiMaggio called the emergency a “disastrous loss of basic services.”
Later in the meeting, Arnold admitted issuing a boil-water order while hundreds of people had none “seemed tone deaf at best.”
Several system breaks and leaks were discovered in the days after the crisis began. The most significant break — resulting in a 500-gallon-per-minute leak — was found July 8 near Spencer Loomis Elementary School in Hawthorn Woods, officials said.
According to the company, corrosive soil may have eaten away at that pipe and caused the break.
All repairs were completed by July 9. The last affected customers were told their water was safe to drink again July 11.
The company is investigating its employees’ response to the crisis, too, Arnold said.
The company also is taking steps to prevent such a crisis from happening again, Arnold and Carter said. Those steps include making alarms more sensitive, creating a remote monitoring system for the water plant, improving training protocols and increasing system capacity faster than originally scheduled,
A community advisory council also has been proposed.
Aqua Illinois is sending $100 gift cards to every customer affected by the outage. They should arrive in mailboxes this week.
After their lengthy presentation, Aqua representatives fielded questions and heard criticisms from trustees and audience members.
The company’s delayed response, the poor communication, lost trust and the quality of customer service were among the topics covered. One Hawthorn Woods resident, Neil Koplitz, called the gift cards headed their way insufficient, considering the size of their monthly bills.
“It’s a nice start,” Koplitz said.
The Illinois Commerce Commission, which regulates public utility services, is investigating the company’s reaction to the crisis.
More information about the system failure and Aqua’s response can be found at aquawater.com/iljuly2023.php.