Railing on the River: EPA Demands Chicago River Cleanup

Time for MWRD to stop dragging heels and start decontaminating sewage it dumps

CHICAGO (May 13, 2011) -- A strongly-worded letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the State of Illinois could finally end the long battle over the cleanup of the Chicago River, according to environmental law experts at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The letter calls for new water quality standards in the waterway, an issue that has been the source of the longest-running battle in the history of the Illinois Pollution Board where the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District has spent millions of dollars resisting stricter standards.

At the heart of the issue is the District’s practice of dumping undisinfected wastewater from its water treatment plants into the river. Chicago is the only major city in America where the practice is tolerated. In places, effluent from those plants makes up 70% of the water flowing in the waterway. Earlier this month, NRDC led a coalition of groups suing to address the water pollution dumped from the District’s sewer overflow facilities.

Following is a statement from NRDC Midwest Director and former Commissioner of the Environment for the City of Chicago, Henry Henderson:

“We have for many years met with, reasoned with, argued with and finally sued the Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago to get the District to do its job, and treat of the Chicago Waterway System as a clean, modern waterway.  The District persists in treating the waterway as a ghastly sewer. It is unacceptable, a threat to public health and safety and a ridiculous failure of government. We are very pleased that the EPA has joined the fight to fix the problem, and called for the District to change its ways and obey the law.

“We need the District to face facts: the waterway runs through our communities, past homes, businesses, park land and schools. It should not be an open sewer. People are using the river for recreation. We are spending millions of dollars to build homes next to the river. The waterway is an amenity. EPA’s letter this week indicates the intention to force the District to meet its responsibilities to finally treat the waterway as required by the Clean Water Act. We note that the Clean Water Act is over 40 years old. Now it is time for the District to stop dragging its heels, and solve these problems that make the waterway a sewer.

“The District has signaled that it is in confidential negotiations with the EPA. We hope that the Agency is talking as tough in those private negotiations as they are in public. The Chicago region desperately needs to rethink its aging water infrastructure. The agreement between MWRD and EPA could signal the first tentative moves in the right direction -- especially if they follow the lead of recent similar agreements such as the one in Cleveland which uses green infrastructure tools to augment a revamped sewer system. This stuff isn’t sexy, but it is hugely important to the local economy to remove disease risks and eliminate flooded basements.”

More information on the fight to clean up the Chicago River can be found at: