A poor excuse for polluting the Chicago River


I’ve been wondering lately about how they do chores in the households of Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioners.  During the day, the commissioners are charged with cleaning up Chicago’s sewage in their treatment plants.  But when the commissioners go home at night, do they let their kids tell them that there’s no point in cleaning the upstairs bathroom, because the downstairs bathroom is still totally filthy? 

You certainly get that sense from looking at the District’s draft permit renewal

To back up just a bit, MWRD has been arguing strenuously in the hearings on Illinois EPA’s disinfection proposal – which it has now spent upwards of $13 million fighting – that there’s no point in cleaning up the pathogens from its sewage effluent until the problem of combined sewer overflows is dealt with.   Combined sewer overflows (CSOs) are what happens  when you combine an antiquated sewer system with a rainstorm.  These old-school systems – like Chicago’s – send stormwater and sewage to the treatment plant via the same pipes.  Which works just fine, until a rainstorm exceeds the system’s capacity, at which point the raw sewage and stormwater mixture is dumped straight into the river at a CSO outfall point (and all too often into people’s basements). 

I will not argue with the District on the proposition that CSOs are nasty.  (Although at one point, the District was so hellbent on trying to prove the Chicago River is just fine that they overshot the mark a bit and presented “science” purporting to show, in effect, that it’s perfectly safe to recreate in the River right after a CSO dump.  But let’s not go there just now.)  The part that has left me scratching my head is this idea that we shouldn’t bother to clean up one really nasty source of sewage pathogens – the undisinfected wastewater pouring out of the District’s treatment plants 24/7 – because there’s also another really nasty source of sewage pathogens out there too during rainstorms.  Call me crazy, but shouldn’t we maybe consider cleaning up both posthaste?  Since even if disinfection happens first, it will at least be a little safer to take a canoe out when it hasn’t been raining? 

Sadly, the District’s draft permit renewal makes its real intentions clearer, and even less defensible.    It seems the District’s real plan is not even to solve its two sewage pollution problems one at a time, but to delay solving either of them for decades.  The District’s current permit estimates completion of the deep tunnel and reservoir project to control the CSOs by 2015.  But the new draft permit gives an estimated completion date of 2024.  And somehow, between then and the public hearing on the draft in March, that date slipped back to 2029 in the District’s powerpoint presentation. 

What’s doubly unfortunate is that the Illinois EPA, which has to its credit been pressing the District to disinfect, is thus far letting them get away with this absurd delay gambit in the CSO schedule.  The federal EPA’s CSO policy – which Illinois EPA is supposed to be following – sensibly requires that a long-term plan to control CSOs, such as the TARP plan, be accompanied by a reasonable and enforceable schedule for completion.  Thus far, however, Illinois EPA is refusing to do so.  The draft permit not only sets an absurdly long timeline for completion of the CSO project, but states that the schedule is being provided merely for “informational purposes.”  We and our coalition colleagues have been very pleased with Illinois EPA’s proposed regulations requiring disinfection at the District’s plants, and are urging the Agency   to reconsider and take a similarly strong position requiring a reasonable CSO completion date.   

Because in the household I grew up in, requests to delay cleaning up our messes for two decades would be met with a bucket, a sponge, and a grounding.