What Do We Owe the Chicago River? Disinfection

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I was struck by the beautiful and poetic ode to the Chicago River that Deborah Shore posted on Huffington Post this week. The history of the waterway is truly amazing and central to the growth of the great city of Chicago. And as a debt of gratitude, her essay asks, “What do we owe the river?”

I think it is a simple answer. We owe the Chicago River $1.94.

With that lowly sum, we can give the river and the communities on its bank their due. With that money, we can fulfill a long held request from both the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois.

That small sum buys us, finally, disinfection of the human waste being dumped into the Chicago River and its connecting streams and waters.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) is an independent government authority with elected body overseeing water issues in Cook County, Illinois. Ms. Shore is a Commissioner elected to that board. The board members oversee sewage treatment facilities along the Chicago River, and are aggressively resisting a regulatory proposal from Illinois EPA to disinfect water it releases from those facilities into the waterway of harmful viruses and bacteria associated with sewage. Instead of fully protecting people in and along the river from dangerous pollution, the facilities governed by the board are actively dumping bacterial pollution into the river every day, and occasionally releasing it into the Great Lakes.

More than a century ago, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. contemplated the content in the Chicago River and wrote:

It is a question of the first magnitude whether the destiny of the great rivers is to be the sewers of the cities along their banks… [Missouri v. Illinois, 200 U.S. 496 (1906)]  

At that time, the answer seemed to be: “Apparently, yes.”  To protect the people of Chicago from fouling their own drinking water with deadly microbes, it took an engineering wonder that reversed the Chicago River away from the Great Lakes and downstream to the Mississippi River watershed.

Today, it is much simpler and elegant solution: disinfect the waste water before releasing it to the open river that runs through our community, past homes, businesses, parks and playgrounds. Golly! We can use equipment employed in almost every other city in America and the civilized world to make Chicago’s river cleaner and safer.  Disinfection is common practice almost everywhere else in the country. It is just shocking to see this simple, standard and common practice absent from one of our nation’s greatest cities. In fact, resisted by the government in charge of protecting the people it taxes from pollution---despite pleas from the City of Chicago and State of Illinois to fix the problem. It is a mindset that is woefully out of date, seemingly unchanged from the Romans who viewed rivers as a way to move commerce and sewage.

Simply put, while the river is getting much cleaner, MWRD continues to put water with bacteria associated with a bevy of waterborne illnesses back into the water. And as more and more people come into contact with the river through boating, fishing, new housing developments, and general recreation, more and more people are likely to get sick.

True, MWRD is “investigating the problem” with long, expensive and involved epidemiology studies.  But we already know the answers here; it is one of the earliest lessons that urban society’s figured out as it relates to public health. Dr. Peter Orris, Professor and Chief of Occupational Medicine at University of Illinois at Chicago and respected epidemiologist, summarized it well in recent Illinois Pollution Board hearings on the subject:

…You have one of the oldest known associations between environment and diseases and that is the ingestion of pathogens from water. We have known since antiquity that the injection of pathogens from water causes disease. We have known for many years that one of the most important public health initiatives, one of the most important public health preventive measures taken in the last 100, 200 years is the disinfection of water when in comes into contact with human beings in a variety of ways.

Having said that, then we also have a standard adopted throughout the country and much of the world that says that these waterways ought to be disinfected and that recreational waterways of this sort ought to be disinfected. And, finally, we have what looked to me to be a very balanced recommendation from the IEPA on it also.

As an environmental lawyer I have often been faced with complex issues of complicated chemicals, hard to identify emissions and pathways of exposure, and difficult technical questions about pollution control.  This one seems pretty simple: it is a fundamentally bad idea to dump microbes from human fecal matter into open water that runs through a dense and great city, and the authorities in charge of the system should disinfect the waste. Who needs intestinal miasma running in the river, and sometimes into the Great Lakes?

A group of interested nonprofit organizations and NGOs have been working to identify the real cost to deal with this issue. Their research and a USEPA engineering study found the answer to be that surprisingly low sum of $1.94---the cost per household per month to stamp out the public health risk from germs such as hepatitis, Shigella, E. coli, and Cryptosporidium that are present in non-disinfected waterways.

For all we owe the Chicago River, that just doesn’t seem like a lot to ask in return!


Chicago River - Jackson Boulevard Bridge photo by Wallyg via Flickr