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Lawmakers still looking for action on Legionnaires’ crisis

vets 030518 22 CHICAGO – Already frustrated at the lack of action regarding the burgeoning public health crisis at a state-run veterans home in Quincy, state lawmakers learned Monday that Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration is now working on a plan to demolish buildings on the campus and build new ones, a project that could take three to five years.

In the meantime, state officials will continue to employ temporary shower and faucet filters in hopes of containing toxic levels of the Legionella bacteria that has sickened dozens and been blamed for 13 deaths at the Quincy facility since 2015.

Top officials in Rauner’s administration promised lawmakers the construction plans would be submitted for approval by May 1.

That’s not good enough, some lawmakers said.

“We can’t wait until May. How many more people are going to get sick? We just need to solve the problem now. I just don’t feel there’s this sense of urgency to get this done,” said State Senator Cristina Castro, an Elgin Democrat.

Castro and others have reviewed state-commissioned engineering reports that recommend replacing the antiquated plumbing. The old galvanized pipes, some possibly a century old, have corroded and the resulting biofilm inside is known to harbor the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease.

A 2016 engineering report pegged at $8 million the cost of replacing the plumbing in buildings housing at-risk veterans. It was shelved, lawmakers learned Monday, in large part, because the state had just cut the ribbon on an expensive new water treatment system it thought would remedy the situation.

Instead, infections continued, as have return visits by specialists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Earlier this year, the state went back to the engineering firm and asked for an updated and expanded plan for the veterans home. The cost of the two reports was a combined $60,000.

And while those reports contain recommendations and options for replacing the old plumbing, Veterans Affairs Director Erica Jeffries said such work would not be a prudent use of state resources and the projects would be too disruptive to the campus and the veterans.

That would appear to contradict Gov. Rauner’s own remarks. He spent a week living at the veterans home and emerged with a four-point plan that began with replacing the plumbing throughout the complex.

At Monday’s hearing, Jeffries gave the initial outline of a project that would demolish buildings and construct new ones across the sprawling campus. She said it could take three years “or longer” to be completed.

Castro and others were unconvinced, saying the state has known of the problems at the Quincy site for years and has not done all it could.

“That’s a good answer for 2016, not 2018,” Castro said.

Monday’s hearing in Chicago was part of an ongoing, bipartisan effort to probe what happened at the Quincy facility and, more importantly, why more hasn’t been done to solve the underlying problems, specifically the century-old plumbing that is known to harbor the bacteria that can cause Legionnaires’ disease.

“The No. 1 goal is to find a solution, find a remedy,” said State Senator Tom Cullerton, a Villa Park Democrat who co-chairs the committee hearings.