Prairie Rivers Network & Partners Score Legal Victory for Clean Water

Illinois Appellate Court Agrees MWRD Waste Water Permits are Illegal
By Kim Knowles

In a much-welcomed decision, the Illinois Appellate Court handed clean water advocates a victory by declaring that three very significant waste water permits do not comply with the Illinois Environmental Protection Act. The three permits under challenge were issued to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) and those permits allowed MWRD to continue discharging high levels of the pollutant phosphorus to Illinois waters.

Too much phosphorus in water can be very harmful to aquatic life and it can be very harmful to people. Phosphorus fuels the growth of algae. Too much algae and we get the green gunk-infested waters we’re all too familiar with in Illinois. It’s nasty and it stinks and no one wants to swim in it. And when it decomposes, it robs the water of oxygen, making life difficult for fish and other aquatic creatures that depend on it. Certain forms of algae can also be toxic, as we saw in Toledo when algal toxins shut down that city’s drinking water supply. A great many of Illinois’ rivers, lakes and streams are polluted by phosphorus and algae.

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MWRD discharges a lot of phosphorus to the Chicago Area Waterway System, which eventually flows to the Illinois River and then to the Mississippi River. Despite MWRD’s huge contribution to the phosphorus problem, the district has not been required, until most recently, to remove phosphorus from its discharge. Unfortunately, those recent requirements fell far short of protecting water quality, so we joined with Sierra Club, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Chicago River and Gulf Restoration Network in a legal challenge of MWRD’s waste water discharge permits. And – we won!

The Appellate Court has ordered Illinois to ensure that MWRD’s permits do not allow it to discharge levels of phosphorus that can cause harmful algal blooms. Procedurally, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency will have to start over with MWRD’s permits and figure out what phosphorus permit limits will protect the Chicago Area Waterway System and downstream waters. While we expect some confusion and delay on the part of the agency, we are greatly heartened by the important legal precedent the Appellate Court has set. This decision sets the path to more protective waste water permits throughout the state.  Nice going!