Good News for Chicago Waterways!

Senator Durbin joins MWRD commissioners in cutting the ribbon on the new disinfection facilities at the Calumet wastewater plant.
Senator Durbin joins MWRD commissioners in cutting the ribbon on the new disinfection facilities at the Calumet wastewater plant.

Senator Durbin cut the ribbon last Friday at the Calumet Water Reclamation Plant, as new disinfection equipment was dedicated at this Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) facility that treats wastewater for one million people living in South Chicago and surrounding suburbs. The new treatment will kill pathogenic bacteria in the wastewater that is discharged to the Calumet River. This improvement in water treatment is one result of years of effort to improve the standards for Chicago’s rivers in order to better protect people who recreate on and creatures who live in them.

In June, the longest rulemaking in the history of the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) ended with the board adopting greatly improved standards for numerous pollutants in the Chicago Area Waterways Systems (CAWS) and Lower Des Plaines River (LDPR).

In 2000, Illinois EPA began looking at upgrading the standards for the CAWS and LDPR for the first time since the Clean Water Act went into effect 43 years ago. Eight years ago the IEPA proposed new standards to the IPCB. Sierra Club Illinois and other advocates for cleaner rivers participated at numerous hearings and by filing written comments along with representatives from MWRD and industrial dischargers.

Recreational Use Map
Designated Recreational Uses in Chicago’s rivers. Source: MWRD-J. Wasik

The first thing decided in the rulemaking in 2011 was that more and more people are out recreating on the CAWS and LDPR and need to be protected from pathogens that survive the basis wastewater treatment process. Portions of the CAWS have been upgraded to protect people who swim, dive, and jump in the water; these reaches are designated for primary contact. Other portions have been upgraded to protect people who are wading, fishing, paddling and boating who may have incidental contact with river water. The result is that MWRD is now required to disinfect the wastewater it discharges from its Calumet plant on the southside of Chicago and the O’Brien plant on the northside. The Calumet plant began discharging disinfected wastewater last week, and the O’Brien plant will begin disinfecting its water later this year.

On June 18, 2015 the IPCB issued its final order to upgrade numerous other standards for the waterways. Lower levels of heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel and zinc will be permitted to be discharged into the rivers. For the first time, limits have been placed on discharges on dangerous compounds such as benzene and toluene.

More stringent standards limiting thermal pollution have also been adopted for the waterways. The updated thermal standards are set to go into effect in 3 years, despite a last ditch effort by NRG Energy to delay their effective date.

These improved standards are designed to protect the fish and other aquatic life that have returned to Chicago’s waters as the treatment of wastewater and industrial discharges has improved under the Clean Water Act. The final step is approval by US EPA which is currently reviewing the standards.