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Chapa LaVia won’t give up fight for former Nicor workers

State Rep. LindChapLavimeets with former Nicor employees Steve Friel (top); Bruce Brummel (right) Bonnie Sebby. The Aurorlegislator has been staunch

State Rep. Linda Chapa Lavia meets with former Nicor employees Steve Friel (top); Bruce Brummel (right) and Bonnie Sebby. The Aurora legislator has been a staunch supporter of these workers who say contaminated water from the River Street building caused serious medical issues.

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Updated: November 26, 2013 6:10AM

Despite the many stories we’ve done over the last six years about the Nicor water controversy, I’d never seen the videos until a few weeks ago.

I’m glad I did, for it reminded me why it is important to keep this story from fading away.

The documentary contains multiple hours of interviews with about a dozen current and former Nicor employees blaming their serious illnesses on the contaminated water at the gas company’s now-razed Aurora building on River Street.

It’s a compelling video that left me tearing up at times. But mostly I shook my head in frustration as I listened to these once happy, healthy employees reveal their tales of loyalty, sickness and what many see as company betrayal.

“Nicor,” insists Illinois state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, “is literally waiting for these people to die.”

Much of the video is hard to watch, including segments where grown men sob as they describe horrific symptoms that resulted in cancers, blood disorders, brain and joint degeneration and tattered digestive systems. It becomes even more difficult when they allege this company they devoted their lives to not only denied there were problems, but fired some of them and refused compensation for mounting medical bills.

“We filmed this for two weekends,” recalls Chapa LaVia, who created the documentaries so there “would be a public record” of what these Nicor employees have been through. “And the cameramen could not stop crying.”

Chapa LaVia, who has been among their most vocal supporters since we first reported this story in 2006, gave me copies of the videos when I recently met with her and the handful of employees still fighting the utility company. They include Bruce Brummel, who initially raised these concerns, and who has been trying to get a whistleblower lawsuit in front of a jury for the past few years so “the whole truth will finally come out.”

As our initial stories revealed, documentation supplied by the city of Aurora indicated the water these employees drank at the River Street building was directly connected to a tank tainted with three times the legal level of methylene chloride, which is known to cause cancer, nerve, blood and digestive disorders. There’s also evidence Nicor officials were telling employees there was no problem, even as they were forced by the city to correct it.

The Illinois Attorney General’s Office and OSHA have cleared Nicor of wrongdoing. And in 2011, the company offered Brummel $125,000 in a worker’s compensation settlement, but has repeatedly denied liability.

Chapa LaVia herself has helped set up multiple meetings with Nicor officials, as well as the Attorney General’s Office, to try and resolve some issues. She even sent letters to then-U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Sen. Dick Durbin and President Obama himself. And she wrote to Nicor’s new president asking for closure on this case Beth Reese inherited when taking over the company in 2012 .

The response she received was similar to the one I got this week when I asked to speak to the new leader: “Nicor Gas respects and believes in the judicial process and does not comment on pending litigation,” company spokesperson Annette Martinez told me. “The complaints regarding this matter are currently being addressed through the legal process and we believe that is the appropriate venue.”

It’s hard, Chapa LaVia admits, to go up against a Goliath like Nicor.

But that’s not stopped this state representative from trying. Dozens of attorneys have taken this case only to give up when they realize what this battle would cost them in time, money and reputation, she says. Most recently, Chapa LaVia introduced Brummel to yet another lawyer who seems determined to get the whistleblower case to trial. And on Nov. 7, she plans to accompany Brummel to court in DuPage County, where he will continue that fight.

Marty Feltes wants to be there, as well. Now the operations manager for East Aurora School District, the certified plumber who was instrumental in exposing the problems at the River Street building years ago, describes it as “an example of a big company who has spent millions trying to cover up the problem instead of admitting fault.”

“It’s an embarrassment to Nicor,” says Feltes. “I don’t know what it’s going to take, short of a miracle, to see justice.”

He and Chapa LaVia won’t back down because of the faces in these videos.

“These are people who worked hard and lived by the golden rule, says Chapa LaVia. “They expected their company, which made its fortune off the backs of hard-working middle class people, to take care of them.” Instead, “they were thrown off Nicor’s payroll and now taxpayers are footing the bill” for their illnesses.

“They don’t want to be there,” she insists. “They are honorable men and women with high integrity. Not to help them is just wrong.”

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