State and local public health authorities have looked high and low for the sources of fatal Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at the Quincy veterans’ home. Now, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is offering a new theory.
“Massive floods and tornadoes” and “a lot of dirt.”
But Rauner offered no proof, and experts who spoke to WBEZ were skeptical.
Rauner told an audience of state employees and lawmakers in downstate Marion on Tuesday that extreme weather in 2015 was directly correlated to a Legionnaires’ outbreak that killed 12 Illinois Veterans Home residents that year and sickened dozens more.
“In 2015, we had massive floods and tornadoes. I don’t know if you remember 2015. It was a rough weather year. But the Mississippi River got a bunch of flooded water into it, a lot of dirt, and a whole bunch of Legionella bacteria, which are nasty water bugs,” Rauner said.
“They got in the Mississippi River. The Mississippi River is where the Quincy veterans’ home gets its water. And bacteria got in all the old plumbing,” Rauner said, adding that much of the plumbing at the 131-year-old facility is original and also a main culprit.
Rauner’s comments came during a statewide tour highlighting enactment of a new state budget that includes $53 million in appropriations to begin the demolition and rebuild of the Quincy facility. As recently as December, Rauner’s administration had boasted the home had the cleanest water in Illinois.
Neither Rauner’s office nor the state public health department could point to any specific analysis that directly linked flooding in Quincy to the facility’s recurring Legionnaires’ outbreaks in 2015, 2016, 2017, and again this past February.
In a half dozen reports investigating the crisis at Quincy, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made no such linkage, and the head of the public works department in the west-central Illinois community told WBEZ he’s aware of no connection.
“I’ve never heard that before. I’d say the governor is not an epidemiologist. And I never heard the CDC make any correlation between the Legionella outbreak and flooding. That’s news to me,” said Jeff Conte, Quincy’s director of utilities, which oversees the city’s water treatment plant.
CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund cited two published CDC reports linking increased rainfall with a higher risk of Legionnaires’ disease. However, she said the agency has not made that link in Quincy.
“CDC’s work focused on assessing the premise plumbing systems for risk of growth and transmission rather [than] outside environmental issues so we wouldn’t be able to assess whether the Quincy outbreak was directly related to rainfall,” she said in an email statement to WBEZ.
A nationally respected water-safety advocate also questioned the governor’s assertion.
“It seems difficult to believe that that’s the primary source of the problem,” said Erik Olson, director of the New York City-based Natural Resources Defense Council’s health and environment program.
He has studied lead- and Legionella-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, and testified on Capitol Hill about water safety.
The National Weather Service office in St. Louis told WBEZ that there was no documented tornado in Quincy in July 2015, though severe thunderstorms brought straight-line wind gusts of 60 to 70 mph on July 13 of that year.
The weather service also said the Mississippi River flooding went above flood stage only twice during July 2015. Overall, however, river flooding was described that month as only “minor,” with recorded depth levels of about 18 feet in Quincy — well below the record value of 30 feet.
Dave McKinney covers state government and politics for WBEZ. Follow him @davemckinney.