If you live in Rock Island, much of the quality of the city water has to do with Sandy O’Neill.
The unassuming 66-year-old Moline native is retiring after her last day Friday, Sept. 16. O’Neill has worked 34 years as a chemist for the city of Rock Island water treatment plant, after 10 years with the Rock Island County Health Department.
She initially was a registered environmental sanitarian for the health department, including doing health inspections for restaurants.
“I’ve always liked science,” she said Thursday at the Rock Island water plant. Member of the 800-person Moline High class of 1973, O’Neill was a biology major at Illinois State. Her husband John is a retired Moline firefighter.
After working for the county health department, Sandy happened to see there was an opening for a Rock Island lab technician job, at the sewer plant. After 10 months, the water treatment plant job became available.
“As far as the water industry overall, it’s male-dominated,” O’Neill said Thursday. “There is a lot of women in the lab portion. The chemist in East Moline is a woman. And lab technicians here I have worked with have all been female.”
There is also a chemist at the Rock Island wastewater plant.
Answering to the public
“I am accountable to the citizens; I am accountable to the Illinois Department of Public Health,” O’Neill said. “I’m also accountable to the EPA. Basically, my normal day is testing the water throughout the whole treatment process – from where it comes out of the river to here, the different steps of treatment it goes through, to out in the distribution system.”
Over the years, the plant distribution sample testing has reduced from 60 samples a month to 40 (because of declines in city population), she said, noting there are more and stricter regulations over the plant than 30 years ago.
“It’s become easier since we got the new filtration plant, that’s helped a lot,” O’Neill said. That new plant was added in 2020, and the water treatment plant was built in 1999.
“I have met so many nice people throughout the city,” she said. “The hard thing sometimes is when we have main breaks, so you have boil orders.”
When the water comes back on, O’Neill has to sample it before the city lifts the boil order.
“It can be January at 7 o’clock at night, it’s dark and cold and you’re knocking on somebody’s door,” she recalled. “They don’t know you from Adam and you have to explain who you are, what you’re there for, and ask for permission to come into their house to collect a sample.”
For the most part, people have been friendly, she said, explaining to residents about the boil order.
“Kind of trying to be a diplomat, because you’re used to being able to use your water,” O’Neill said. “And we have construction projects that sometimes require shutdowns, that can be frustrating for people. It’s advising them in how to deal with that, which can be a challenge.”
When she tests water, O’Neill uses agents that change the color and often measures hardness – the amount of minerals in water.
“Rock Island doesn’t soften its water; it’s whatever comes out of the river is what we get,” O’Neill said. “A lot of people like soft water, so there’s a lot of people in town that have water softeners.”
Part of treatment is the disinfection process, which includes some water softening, she said. “Routinely, we check the pH, the chlorine residual, the clarity of the water. We also check alkalinity, the fluoride, the iron.”
Also, as the water is treated, operators run tests, O’Neill said. “There’s a lot to it. As far as the public, they’re counting on us and EPA to do the right treatment.”
All people have to go by is the taste, odor and look of water.
“Sometimes, it doesn’t taste so good or it might smell bleachy, so people will call,” O’Neill said. “So I will go out and try to figure out why it’s doing what it’s doing and correct it if I can.”
Many homeowners get a Brita-type filter for their faucet. A lot of water taste comes from disinfection, O’Neill said.
“Some of our pipes are quite old,” she said of the city. “We don’t get a lot of complaints. We’ve kind of become better. In the fall, we do a citywide hydrant flush and we change disinfection.”
The city will announce when they do that, which takes a few weeks. “We’re trying to be better about letting people know what’s happening,” O’Neill said, noting that will start in October.
Life in retirement
John O’Neill retired from Moline Fire in 2009; they built a new house north of Orion and moved in 2019. They had lived in the same house in Moline 39 years.
The couple has no children, but are on their fourth dog – a female Chesapeake Bay retriever.
In retirement, they like to visit vintage camping trailers (they own three now), heading soon to a rally in Milford, Mich. They have a 1963 Airstream; a ’73 compact and a ’66 Shasta (in the process of being restored).
“They’re just neat,” O’Neill said of the campers. “The ’63 is still on the road; it works fine. One of my husband’s biggest thrills on the road, we’re at a rest stop and people come up and say, ‘That trailer looks really cool.’”