New pollution standards will mean Chicago sewage gets disinfected

US Demands Chicago River Clean-UpOn May 11th, the USEPA told Illinois EPA that if they don’t insist on tougher pollution standards for the Chicago River, the Cal-Sag Channel and the Little Calumet River “promptly,” then USEPA will do it for them. This news was greeted with agreement from various environmental groups who have long argued for the river to be made cleaner, as was covered on Chicago’s ABC- TV station, WLS. Read the letter from USEPA here.

This is great news for the growing numbers of people who are using these waters for boating, fishing, and swimming.  Right now, the treated sewage that makes up a large amount of the water in the Chicago River, the Cal-Sag Channel and the Little Calumet River is not disinfected. This puts people at risk of contracting illnesses when they are in and on the water. Chicago is the only major city in America (and the industrialized world) that does not disinfect its sewage (yuck!). In fact, this daily discharge of 1.2 billion gallons of undisinfected sewage into the Chicago River system has earned the river a place on the annual list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers. People are talking, as no city (especially with a new mayor!), would want to be in the headlines for such a designation.

With new standards in place, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which operates Cook County’s sewage treatment plants, will likely have to disinfect sewage at the massive Calumet and Northside Wastewater Treatment Plants that dump to the Chicago River, the Cal-Sag Channel and the Little Calumet River.

The Chicago waterways were little more than an open sewer for nearly a hundred years. The 1972 Clean Water Act slowly resulted in cleaner water, so that we now have the opportunity for much more – for an asset and amenity running through the heart of the city to complement the gem that is Lake Michigan. USEPA’s action is yet another development, like the Asian carp crisis and our lawsuit against the Water District for illegal pollution, that point towards the need to re-think how we live with the waterways. Now is the time to re-invent the Chicago River and canals to provide upgraded wastewater and transportation infrastructure, world-class recreational and tourism opportunities, and healthy waters and people.

This post was updated on May 19, 2011 to reflect new press coverage.