Tag Archives: water pollution

A Brighter Future for Chicago and Illinois Waterways

chicagor1-19-17Today Sierra Club and partners celebrate a milestone agreement with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) to address nutrient pollution impacts in Chicago’s rivers and downstream waters. With guidance from representatives of the environmental groups and the Illinois EPA, MWRD will develop a plan over the next seven years designed to address excessive plant and algae growth in Chicago Area waterways.

Too many nutrients in our waterways, especially phosphorus from wastewater discharges and combined sewer overflows, fuel the overgrowth of aquatic plants and algae that in turn suck needed oxygen out of the waters. Chicago’s waterways have seen a remarkable recovery in diversity of fish and other aquatic life as water quality has improved in recent years, but further recovery is hampered by excessive plant/algae growth.


Algae and plants in the North Shore Channel

 As a backstop to the to-be-developed plan, MWRD has agreed to further cut phosphorus discharges from its three large Chicago wastewater treatment plants to 0.5 mg/L by 2030, if a more stringent limit is not developed by then. MWRD will also study what it will take to reduce its phosphorus discharges to the even lower levels (as low as 0.1 mg/L) that some plants elsewhere in the nation are already meeting.  MWRD has already demonstrated its ability to find innovative ways to pull phosphorus out of its wastewater and has created a marketable fertilizer product with the addition last year of the world’s largest nutrient recovery system at its Stickney plant.


Algae in the Illinois River

Understanding the impacts of nutrients on algae and plant growth and oxygen levels in our waterways requires good data. To that end, MWRD has also agreed to sponsor a water quality monitoring station on the Des Plaines River in Joliet for the next four years. It will continuously measure levels of nitrates, phosphorus, oxygen, and chlorophyll along with other basic parameters. At the same time, Illinois EPA will monitor chlorophyll and oxygen levels and basic parameters downstream in the Marseilles, Starved Rock and Peoria pools on the Illinois River. If, as we expect, it is found that serious problems are being caused by phosphorus in the lower Des Plaines and Illinois rivers, a watershed committee will be formed to address those problems.

Just 10 years ago, Chicago’s rivers were largely treated as a watery sacrifice zone. We didn’t require these waterways to meet the levels of cleanliness we set for other waters in the state. MWRD did not disinfect its wastewater, despite the growing number of people out paddling and rowing. The effort to reduce combined sewer overflows (CSOs) was uncertain, with completion of the Deep Tunnel project to capture and treat CSOs long-delayed and not mandated. Now MWRD disinfects its wastewater at all but the Stickney plant (we hope that is to come in the near future). They are busy working on green infrastructure
projects— such as the
Space to Grow program that converts paved schoolyards into beautiful playgrounds and gardens that also soak up rain and snow. They completed the Thornton reservoir in 2015 which can store 7.9 billion gallons. Both green and gray infrastructure projects are needed measures to reduce CSOs.


Chapter Director Jack Darin addressing the MWRD Commissioners on partnering to implement the agreement.

It has never been more important that local governments and states show leadership in protecting our waters and investing in clean water infrastructure.  With this agreement, MWRD is setting an example of that leadership and we are excited to partner with them on this work in the years to come.

With progress being made on disinfection and CSOs, this agreement to address nutrient pollution is the third critical initiative needed for a brighter future for Chicago’s waterways. As we modernize our area’s water infrastructure, we also create good jobs, boosting our local economy along with the cleaner rivers that will also draw people and businesses. Today’s announcement sets the stage for Chicago’s rivers to truly become Chicago’s second great waterfront, where people will increasingly want to work and play.

See our joint statement with MWRD on this step forward for clean water.

See our press release on this agreement which settles two Clean Water Act legal cases we brought with our environmental partners to address MWRD’s phosphorus pollution.

Read NRDC’s blog if you’d like more detail on the history of the legal cases and the elements of this historic agreement.


Pollution Control Board Finds Industry Mine in Violation of Water Permit

Polluted runoff from Industry Mine.

For eight years, between 2004 and 2011, Springfield Coal Company’s 5,651-acre Industry Mine in McDonough and Schuyler Counties violated its water permit 624 times. Pollutants including sulfates, iron, manganese, pH and total suspended and settled solids were released at 16 of 17 outflow points into tributaries of Grindstone Creek. Grindstone Creek flows into the LaMoine River, which flows into the Illinois River.

industry strip mine

Industry Mine

In 2009, the Sierra Club, Prairie Rivers Network (PRN) and Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) notified the state of their intent to sue over 363 permit violations. In response, on February 10, 2010, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office filed a suit before the Pollution Control Board. On the 25th ELPC filed a motion to intervene on behalf of Sierra Club and PRN. Over the course of the next two years Industry Mine continued to rack up pollution violations, which today amount to 624.

In a ruling released on November 16th, the Illinois Pollution Control Board found Springfield Coal Company’s Industry Mine in violation of its water permit. Springfield Coal and its predecessor, Freeman United Coal Mining Company, face a maximum penalty of $64 million.

The penalty phase of the lawsuit will take place at a hearing at a future date to be determined. Although the Board rarely imposes the maximum fine, its our opinion that this fine should be substantial enough to send a clear message to Springfield Coal and the industry as a whole that clean water standards in Illinois will be enforced!

industry mine

Industry Mine
Photo credit: Marianne Morgan/InIllinoisWater.org

The extreme number of pollution violations at Industry Mine is of particular concern because Springfield Coal is also seeking permits to open two new strip mines in west-central Illinois. One, the North Canton Mine strip mine is proposed directly upstream from Canton Lake, Canton’s public water supply for over 20,000 people.

We commend everyone who took part in this important case, which demands the protection public waterways from chronic violators. From the engaged citizens who saw what was going on and knew they had to take action, to the Attorney General’s Office that took up this case, to the Pollution Control Board that did a thorough review of the data, all played an important role in a system that works if we pay attention and stay involved.