Chicago River Cleanup: Today’s events shift debate from "if" to "when"

Illinois Pollution Control Board Decision and MWRD Hearing Make Disinfection Likely

CHICAGO (June 2, 2011) – The Metropolitan Water reclamation District and the Illinois Pollution control board made it clear today that a cleanup of the Chicago river is likely to commence quickly, just weeks after the U.S. EPA sent a letter demanding that water treatment plants end the practice of dumping undisinfected sewage into the Chicago River and adjoining waterways.

This morning a veto-proof majority of Commissioners for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicagoland (MWRD) said they would vote in favor of a policy position that supports disinfecting sewage dumped from their water treatment plants into the Chicago River, where the effluent makes up 70% of the waterway. Commissioners Michael Alvarez, Patricia Horton, Kathleen Therese Meany, Cynthia Santos, Debra Shore and Mariyana Spyropoulos said that they would vote in favor of the change. The vote was deferred and until the June 16 MWRD meeting.  Also, this afternoon, the Illinois Pollution Control Board, which has been the venue for a marathon legal battle over disinfection, issued a proposed decision that largely reinforces the policies put forth by USEPA. The Pollution Control Board will take public comments for a week before issuing their final decision on June 16.

Today’s dramatic events cap off a week in which the issue was addressed by the Chicago City Council with a hearing and proposed resolution for the river cleanup, as well as a separate hearing held by U.S. Senator Dick Durbin in which he expressed his hope that disinfection would move forward.

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:

“This change ten years in the making and great news for the tens of thousands of people who use and want to use the Chicago River,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director, Friends of the Chicago River. “With disinfection in place we can focus our energy instead on the more complicated issue of combined sewer overflows and finalizing in a strong stormwater management ordinance that utilizes green infrastructure, with all their ancillary benefits, for all of Cook County.”

“The writing on the wall has been clear for a while, but today’s events show that disinfection is inevitable,” said Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Ann Alexander. “June 16 is shaping up to be a historic day in the unique history of the Chicago River, when we stop arguing and start rolling up our sleeves to give Chicago the waterway it deserves---an amenity, not an embarrassment.”

“MWRD should listen to the public and step up, clean up and disinfect the Chicago River,” said Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “After years of hard work, we’re closer to making the Chicago River a true community asset which we can enjoy and be proud of.”

“Change will come to the MWRD, and Chicagoans will have a healthy river,” said Jack Darin, Director of the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter. “MWRD will be the last agency in Chicago to do its part in addressing this important public health issue, but the Illinois Pollution Control Board decision will help advance the heroic efforts of the Commissioners trying to clean the river.”

“From Skokie to the Calumet Region, communities are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into Chicago’s rivers so that the residents can have access to water oriented recreational activities,” said Jerry Adelman, President and CEO of Openlands. “Today’s actions by MWRD Commissioners and the Pollution Control Board signals a monumental shift in how we protect the growing number of people canoeing, kayaking and otherwise getting soaked as they recreate on and in the water.”

The Illinois Pollution Control Board’s draft decision is available at