Why we don’t have to canoe in sewage to save the planet

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District – the agency that runs Chicago’s wastewater treatment plants – is terribly worried about the fate of the planet.  It would be downright irresponsible, it told the Tribune last week, to disinfect its sewage effluent the way every other major U.S. city does, because generating the electricity required for disinfection would create carbon dioxide emissions.  

Well, how nice that they’re concerned.  If that concern were coupled with a respect for federal environmental laws and a smidgen of actual knowledge about how electricity markets work, we might actually have the makings of a productive conversation.   Sadly, it’s not.   

It is amazing, actually, that the District has the nerve to make its climate change argument to the media, given how thoroughly it was shredded a year and a half ago at the Pollution Control Board hearings concerning the Illinois EPA’s proposed disinfection requirement.  While this time around they didn’t even bother presenting a public report  to support their claims, a couple years ago they tried that at the Board – with pretty unfortunate results for them. 

The District had paid an “expert”  to calculate for the Board the supposed carbon footprint of disinfection.  Since there are a lot of dirty power plants in the region, the consultant figured they’d be fired up to power disinfection.  The assistant Attorney General questioning him gently pointed out that, in fact, electrons tend to travel all over the electric grid and can come from anywhere, not just an arbitrarily-defined region, thus rendering his whole premise pretty much wrong.  She then ascertained that this “expert” was utterly oblivious to the statute requiring that Com Ed provide a pie chart with customers’ electric bills showing where their power actually comes from, so that he needn’t really have guessed about that.   He was also ignorant of Illinois’ renewable portfolio standard, which requires that Illinois power distributors buy significantly more energy from clean sources by the time disinfection would be completed.  And he didn’t say a word about the fact that Chicago’s dirtiest power sources, the Fisk and Crawford coal plants, are required under an agreement reached with Illinois EPA a few years ago to either clean up or close down.      

The “expert’s” ignorance, besides completely undermining the District’s technical claims, highlights the more basic problem with its whole premise:  it’s a false choice.   The District is telling us we can either clean up the River or protect the planet from climate change, but not both.  Well, nonsense.  The Illinois renewable portfolio standard, and the cleanup or closure of Fisk and Crawford, are designed to ensure that when we do have need for electric power – to protect public health or for whatever other good reason – we can get it increasingly from sources that minimize carbon dioxide emissions.   Really, the District’s handwringing about carbon emissions just a new twist on the tired “either-or” cliché that seems to surface in every environmental debate – you know, the one that says you can have jobs or a clean environment, but forget about having both.  

Our federal environmental laws are designed to assure that we protect all our natural resources as best we can.  Sure, wasting energy is bad and we should avoid it.  But the District’s reasoning that we shouldn’t disinfect because it requires electricity could just as well be applied to treatment of sewage generally – it’s quite the energy hog, perhaps the District will propose next that we dispense with it and just flush our toilets straight into the River?  The first order question is not whether disinfection uses energy, it’s whether disinfection is a good and necessary use of energy.   If the District could pause for a moment from frantically hurling bad arguments and millions in tax dollars to fight it, perhaps it might  conclude along with Illinois EPA and the rest of the country that removing sewage germs from the water where kids like to go canoeing is actually a pretty good use of a little clean energy.