Chicago Water District Votes to Treat Sewage Before Dumping

CHICAGO, Illinois, June 7, 2011 (ENS) – The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago today moved to clean up the Chicago River by ending the practice of dumping partially treated sewage into local waterways.

The move, which responds years of advocacy by environmental groups and recent direction from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, clears the way for a river that is safe for recreation and human contact.

“Treating this waterway like a sewer has sullied not just our backyards and downtown, but also the Great Lakes and Mississippi River system,” said Henry Henderson, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Midwest Program and a former commissioner of the environment for the City of Chicago.

“Today’s vote finally recognizes that fact and brings us in line with the rest of the nation,” said Henderson. “The river can become the amenity that Chicago deserves, not something to avoid for fear of illness.”

All of the MWRD Commissioners, except MWRD President Terrance O’Brien, voted in favor of a new policy position that supports disinfecting sewage dumped from their North Side and Calumet treatment plants.

Effluent from the plants, which is full of bacteria and pathogens from sewage, makes up 70 percent of the water in Chicago waterways, including the Calumet system.

Excursion boats on the Chicago River, June 3, 2011 (Photo by Mas Miguel)

On May 12, the U.S. EPA notified the State of Illinois that water quality standards for portions of the Chicago and Calumet rivers must be upgraded to protect the health and safety of people who recreate in these waterways.

“The changes are necessary because an increasing number of people are coming into direct contact with the water through kayaking, canoeing, boating, jet and water skiing and other forms of recreation,” the federal agency said.

To attain the new water quality standards, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District will likely be required to disinfect sewage discharged into the waterway system from its North Side and Calumet treatment plants. MWRD ceased disinfection at these facilities in the mid-1980s.

“The Clean Water Act requires water quality standards that protect people who use the river,” said U.S. EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman. “A decade of investments in walkways, boat ramps and parks has provided people with access to the water, and now we need to make sure that the water is safe.”

The EPA directed the Illinois Pollution Control Board to promptly adopt new or revised water quality standards for the North and South Branches of the Chicago River, the North Shore Channel, the Cal-Sag Channel and the Little Calumet River.

If the board does not act, the Clean Water Act authorizes the EPA to do so. Since 2007, the federal agency has repeatedly recommended that Illinois upgrade water quality standards for the waterway system.

Last week, the Illinois Pollution Control Board, which has been the venue for a record-breaking debate over disinfection, issued a proposed decision that largely reinforces the EPA’s directive. The Pollution Control Board will take public comments this week before issuing its final decision on June 16.

U.S. Senators from Illinois Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, Congressman Mike Quigley, Governor Pat Quinn, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and the Chicago City Council have all called for disinfection and cleaning up the Chicago River.

Environmental groups that have advocated long and hard for cleaning up the waterways declared victory today.

“We are thrilled by the district’s decision today” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. “Instead of debating whether we should disinfect we can work together to make it happen. When Friends was founded 32 years ago no one would have ever believed that this day would come. This is terrific news for all the people who use the river or wish they could.”

“On this hot summer day, the Chicago River is becoming cooler, healthier, safer and a better community asset for all of us to enjoy.” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “We’re on our way toward a Chicago River that will be safer for paddling, fishing, recreation and development.”

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