MAHOMET — Two Champaign County residents affected by the Peoples Gas methane leak have filed the first class action lawsuit related to the incident. Meanwhile, Peoples Gas continues to maintain that methane levels at affected wells do not pose a danger.
The lawsuit covers potentially thousands of people who live in rural Mahomet and Fisher.
Some homeowners saw methane, or “natural gas,” bubbling in their well water immediately after the 2015 leak at the Manlove Storage Field. People Gas uses the site in rural Champaign County to store natural gas in sedimentary rocks underground.
But a lawyer says methane didn’t show up in the well of the two homeowners named in the new lawsuit until last year.
Beth Fegan is a partner at FeganScott, one of the law firms handling the case, along with Spiros Law. She says this means gas from the leak is moving, as well as cancer-linked chemicals released at the same time.
“So people have to be vigilant, because one test result today doesn’t mean that tomorrow you might not be at risk for levels that could cause asphyxiation or an explosion,” Fegan says.
The class action lawsuit would cover anyone who lives, works or owns property in rural Mahomet and Fisher. Individuals have filed their own lawsuits with Spiros Law against Peoples Gas in the past.
Fegan says that she’s modeling her arguments on cases against coal companies involving coal ash deposits.
“[Coal ash] goes into the air and affects property values. People don’t want to live next to coal ash plants. It affects their plants, it affects their flowers,” Fisher says.
Meanwhile, plans are still on hold to pipe water from the Sangamon Valley Public Water District out to people whose wells were contaminated.
According to SVPWD Board Chair Meghan Hennesy, the plans are done but the state has yet to release the dollars needed to start the project.
“It is a dire need. We would like to alleviate some of this tragedy, and we need the process to keep moving,” Hennesy says.
Peoples Gas say the levels are safe
Brendon Conway, a spokesperson for WEC Energy Group, which owns Peoples Gas, says that the levels of methane found in Champaign County wells are safe.
“The Illinois Department of Public Health has confirmed that the levels of methane we have detected in private wells do not pose a health concern and are not toxic. The water is safe for drinking and everyday use such as bathing and cooking,” Conway says.
Illinois Public Media contacted IDPH for confirmation on this statement. IDPH spokesperson Melaney Arnold confirmed the basic science behind methane in drinking water but not whether IDPH has specifically approved the levels in Mahomet.
“IDPH can confirm that there are no known health effects associated with consumption of methane in drinking water, but IDPH is not commenting further due to the current lawsuit against Peoples Gas,” Arnold wrote by email.
Conway says that Peoples Gas has been transparent and is helping homeowners with the effects of the leak.
“Unfortunately, this new complaint contains significant factual inaccuracies and dubious legal theories. We look forward to the opportunity to fully respond to the lawsuit through the court process,” Conway says.
Updated at 4:30pm on March 9, 2022 to add a statement from the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter @amihatt.