By Lindsay Toler
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By Allison Babka
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By Jake Rossen
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By Kelsey McClure
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Dot Timmerman feared the Christmas of 1999 might be her last. Doctors had just discovered a cancerous tumor below her left eye and behind her nose. She was told surgery wasn't possible; radiation and chemotherapy were her only options.
On the Friday after Christmas, Dot and her husband, Wilbert, traveled to Barnes-Jewish Hospital from their home near Albers, Illinois, a farm community of 900 people 40 miles southeast of St. Louis. Wilbert sat beside his wife as a nurse injected a thin needle into Dot's arm. For the next seven hours, the chemotherapy drug cisplatin flowed through her veins. When they returned home that night, Dot was sicker than she had felt in all her 67 years.
Just when the Timmermans thought things couldn't get any worse, they did. When they turned on the water faucet, nothing came out: The well that drew water from an underground aquifer to their home had run dry. "I was so sick," Dot remembers. "You try to use the bathroom and there's no water and you're throwing up every time you turn around."
Wilbert, who's now 75, carried water from the couple's hot tub to flush the toilet every time Dot vomited. For cooking and drinking, they bought water in town, and for showers they drove to the houses of their two daughters, who both live twenty miles away.
"We had no water anywhere," Wilbert recalls. "The pond went dry, the natural springs dried up."
The Timmermans spent $5,000 to drill a new, deeper well. It was so cold outside that the well company's equipment kept breaking down. But finally, after ten days, they had water again.
Dot continued with chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and the tumor disappeared. But the next year, Wilbert was diagnosed with prostate cancer. And in 2002 Dot learned that a lump in her breast was malignant.
"Since 2000, it hasn't been very fun around here," Wilbert says with a chuckle. It's easier to laugh nowadays, because so far their cancer treatments have been successful.
Wilbert and Dot sit at the dining-room table in the modest brick house they built in 1964. Dot's light-brown, curled hair frames her ivory face. She smiles as Wilbert, her burly, silver-haired husband of 52 years, reminisces about buying two-cent cans of beer during his tour in Korea and winces when he describes how he lost two fingers to a table saw. The couple raised their three children in this house, only a few miles from the farms where they both grew up.
Out the window, the Timmermans can see what they believe is the source of all their problems -- the cancers, the dry well and ponds, the arsenic that was discovered last year in their new well, the coal dust that has blown across their land for eight years.
Across Hunter Road, exactly 835 feet from the Timmermans' front door, stands a 50-foot-high berm that encompasses 360 acres of waste that was generated during the nineteen years the Monterey Coal Company, a subsidiary of Exxon, mined coal in the area. Since 1991 the state of Illinois and Exxon have known the groundwater beneath the waste pile is contaminated. The company has been pumping water out of the aquifer ever since, in order to prevent the underground pollution from spreading.
In 2001 the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency announced it would sue ExxonMobil (the two companies merged in 1999) for its contamination of the Pearl Aquifer, a shallow, 10,000-acre groundwater source from which the Timmermans and other Clinton County residents have tapped their drinking water for decades. But a year later the agency signed an agreement promising not to sue if the petrochemical company paid $1 million to help build a public water system that would provide an alternative for residents who lived near the waste pile. As part of the settlement, ExxonMobil admitted no guilt in contaminating the aquifer.
Many residents think the company got off too easy. The state kicked in an additional $800,000 to complete the extension of water lines to rural residents. In addition, ExxonMobil has received more than $3 million in state grants over the past three years for another coal mine the company owns 70 miles north in the town of Carlinville.
"One million dollars to Exxon is nothing," Dot Timmerman scoffs. "It's like me going to the Germantown IGA and buying a loaf of bread."
As part of the settlement agreement, ExxonMobil must also pony up an estimated $6 million to cover the waste pile and continue pumping 600,000 gallons a day out of the aquifer, at an annual cost of $100,000. The company must also pay to construct a three-mile pipeline to discharge the contaminated groundwater and other liquid waste into the Kaskaskia River.
Critics say the method of covering the pile is an inexpensive fix that won't significantly reduce groundwater pollution. They also question the wisdom of pumping and dumping contaminated water into the Kaskaskia -- which is a source of drinking water for 30,000 people living downstream -- for the next 100 years. And while locals are relieved to have clean drinking water, some feel ExxonMobil should pay their monthly water bills, since they can no longer drink from the wells they paid for. They also complain that pumping by ExxonMobil is drying up the ponds and wells that they continue to use to water their animals and crops.