Chicago River Clean-Up: Water Regulators Vote to Disinfect

Metropolitan Water Reclamation District will end practice of dumping partially treated wastewater

CHICAGO (June 7, 2011) – In a historic vote, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) today moved to finally 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 USEPA, clears the way for a river safe for recreation and human contact.

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% of the water in our waterways, which includes the Calumet 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 policies put forth by U.S. EPA. The Pollution Control Board will take public comments this week before issuing their final decision on June 16

The U.S. EPA, Senators 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. 

Following are comments from Chicago River advocates who have been leading the long fight to bring Chicagoland’s water system in line with almost every other major city in the nation:

“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. The river can become the amenity that Chicago deserves, not something to avoid for fear of illness.”

“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 & Policy Center. “We’re on our way toward a Chicago River that will be safer for paddling, fishing, recreation and development.”

“Today’s vote by the MWRD signals a monumental shift in how we protect the growing number of people who are canoeing, kayaking, and otherwise relaxing and recreating in and on area waterways,” said Openlands President & CEO Jerry Adelmann.  “Openlands commends the MWRD commissioners for their shared vision of our region’s rivers as a world-class recreational hub and engine for economic growth.”