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Cleaning the Chicago River

 StreetWise (USA) 11 April 2019

When American organisation Friends of the Chicago River started working to clean up the river no one wanted get near it: it was just too polluted. The group that started with 25 volunteers gathers today more 4000 people that work to clean up the waters. But there is still much to be done. (1934 Words) - By Amanda Elliot

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 The Chicago river. Photo: Shutterstock

The riverfront is an important part of Chicago. As restaurants plump next to the waters and cyclists peddle parallel to it, it is evident that people have culminated a new vision.

How beautiful and clean can the river afford to be? Friends of the Chicago River was formed as a result of the support rallied behind his vision for a clean, recreational waterway.

"When we were founded, people thought we were crazy. They didn't understand why people would want to be near the river. It was polluted. And people weren't thinking of how things could change," said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River.

During Friends' initial clean up days, they had a lot of garbage and few volunteers, roughly 25. "We used to get literally 29 tons of trash in one day by volunteers. The vision for the river has changed. People in communities don't think of it as an eyesore. They don't think of it as a place to dump their trash," Frisbie said.

Now Friends is educating people and started corporate workdays in 2008 to show companies and land owners how to care for the river. The first site was Edgebrook Woods by the North Branch of the Chicago River.

While Friends cleans up the river and builds rain gardens, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) has helped to clean the river through another project. The river is much cleaner, allowing secondary contact recreation, in large part because of the Tunnel and Reservoir Project (TARP) that collects 85 percent of combined sewer overflows (CSO). The MWRD started construction in 1975 completing the first phase of the project in 2006, with 109.4 miles of tunnel dug about 200 feet below the Chicago Area Waterway (CAWS). "About .67 inches of rain can bring 2.3 billion gallons to our deep tunnel system and completely fill it," Kevin Fitzpatrick, supervising civil engineer of TARP said.

CAWS is composed of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, the North Shore Channel, and the Calumet-Sag Channel, all of which are man-made projects of MWRD.

Chicago's, like a lot of sewer systems in the Midwest, has a combined sewer system: pipes that capture waste from your toilet flow down the same pipes where rain water is collected. During a storm with over .67 inches of rainfall, the system becomes overwhelmed with water. Thus, water floods basements and streets. MWRD releases the locks, directing the CSOs to Lake Michigan to prevent the water from regurgitating.

The first stage of TARP consisted of a tunnel to collect excess water, which is sent to one of the plants and treated. The second part of TARP is two reservoirs: the Thornton, set to be completed in 2014 and McCook, which will be completed in two phases by 2017 and 2029. The McCook Reservoir alone will span the size of 11 Soldier Fields.

Should we disinfect?

With over 150 public and private access points people are not simply nearing the water, but frolicking in it, Friends note.

"Canoers and kayakers, and I am one of them, should be concerned because you get wet," Ann Alexander, senior attorney in the Midwest office for National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) said.

While every major city in America disinfects murky water before sending it into their river, Chicago does not. The city has the largest plant in the world for secondary treatment, the Stickney, treating 800 million gallons of water a day. Chicago's other two large plants-Calumet and North Side, and also its smallest plant, treat 1.5 billion gallons of water daily. The four all release waste into CAWS (that is not disinfected). The other three plants disinfect in the suburbs.

The 1972 Clean Water Act was set to improve the water quality of America-to make the waterways fishable and swimmable. The Illinois EPA wants to change the rule to make disinfection possible because they believe it can be swimmable.

"I think everyone wants it to be cleaner, the matter is funds," Fitzpatrick, of TARP said.

Frisbie notes that Friends has offered to help raise funds for disinfection or help with the completion of TARP but she says, "They (the District) is saying get out, shut up, don't talk to us-we've got this under control."

For the past four years, MWRD has spent $13 billion fighting off disinfection, Frisbie wrote in Friends' newsletter, Big News from the Pollution Control Board-Get the Pathogens Out.

"MWRD estimates updating the treatment centers to comply with the latest federal recommendations would cost local taxpayers $623 million, money that could otherwise be used to finish the Deep Tunnel. The Illinois EPA puts the price at a more modest $242 million," according to Progress Illinois' website.

A sizable carbon imprint is at stake if the District disinfects. Debra Shore, MWRD commissioner said in her article, Money and Morality: Cleaning Up the Chicago Area Waterways, "A study conducted for the District predicts that disinfection would lead to the annual emission of 180 tons of nitrogen oxides and 650 tons of sulfur oxides, both respiratory irritants linked to lung damage and premature death, as well as six pounds of mercury, which can be toxic to people and animals of all ages and can also impair neurological development in children and fetuses."

Epidemiological Study

"See, all the other cities, yeah they are disinfecting, but nobody has ever studied if there was a benefit to that. On the surface, there is a common sense logic, that yeah it should be a benefit, but how much of a benefit is being realized from it," Thomas Granato, PhD, acting director of monitoring and research for MWRD said.

The University of Chicago did a study: The Chicago Health, Environmental Exposure and Recreation Study (CHEERS) funded by MWRD, completed in 2010 to test whether the water was a serious threat for people who recreate on it for secondary use, meaning limited contact, not swimming. They found there were 12.5 cases of gastrointestinal illness (GI) out of a thousand, comparable with that of Lake Michigan and some inland lakes. MWRD concluded that the CAWS are comparable to general use waters resulting in the same number of infections. In order for the water to be swimmable, there must be fewer than eight cases.

But Frisbie and Alexander call the CHEERS study "disingenuous." According to Frisbie and Alexander, the research actually suggests that there are too many pathogens in both areas-lake and river.

"[Homes are] a quarter mile downstream from the plant. That's what's there, people's backyards," Frisbie added that areas near the plant are where people most frequently recreated. The sun acts as the natural source for radiation, so as the effluent moves downstream, it becomes less potent, but where it first comes out of the plant, is where people are most succeptable to adverse affects.

"Common sense, why do you wash your hands when you go to the bathroom," Frisbie said. "Because you have bacterial sewage on your hands. And I can shake your hand and I can spread it to you. And I can go to a job in a restaurant and I can put it on the salad and I can serve it to you. I can go home and I can talk to my mother. That's why you wash your hands. Employees are required to because they have bacterial sewage on their hands. So tell me when the water is 70 percent sewage effluent with human sewage bacteria in it that's okay? It's disgusting."

While cities are implenting projects based on the TARP model, they are not the size of the project in Chicago. "If you look at the cost, a billion dollars for Cook County, there are many things you could do to improve health standards there are many things you could do that you could get a much bigger benefit from than disinfecting these effluents. That's really what should be debated as far as public policy," Granato said.

Intent to Sue

Disinfection is primarily beneficial to those with the river in their backyard. But Chicago's flow downstream. Frisbie explains, "The sun is the largest source of ultraviolet light and the effluent is virtually indistinguishable (in the Mississippi), our treatment in other ways is inefficient because large amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen flow down into the Des Plaines and the Illinois [Rivers] to the Mississippi." The EPA reports Chicago is the largest contributing source for the dead zone, a place in the Gulf of Mexico where life cannot live. Three environmental groups filed intent to sue MWRD with a mandatory 60-day notice on March 1. According to Ann Alexander of NRDC, the lawsuit says TARP is taking too long to comply with the Clean Water Act. It also charges that MWRD treatment releases nitrogen and phosphorus that causes algae blooms that kill fish and that TARP fails to solve CSO's. Sierra Club and Prairie Rivers Network are also part of the suit.

The TARP project is one of the largest of its kind. MWRD's Fitzpatrick said that because of "the scope" of the project, it is taking so long. "It's really hard to get federal funds," added Patricia Young, manager public affairs for MWRD.

MWRD raises funds from the federal government, but, "there's quite a lot of local money that's going in," Fitzpatrick said. At one point federal funds were scarce, so MWRD invested 100 percent of its funds to continue construction on the Thornton Reservoir.

"We are hoping to get reimbursed by the Army Corps at some point in the future," Fitzpatrick said. Who knows if that will happen, but we're pushing to because this really is a federal project. The McCook reservoir is the other reservoir and the Army Corps is still doing the design and construction of that one, providing 75 percent of that funding and we've provided the remaining 25 percent."

The timetable for TARPs' completion invites skeptics. "Well, they have been working on it since the early 70s, so I would say 2029 is too long," Frisbie said, noting that for the past decade they have extended the deadline each year.

"TARP should be celebrated; we should be drinking champagne," says Frisbie, "We shouldn't be arguing about the natural next step." However, MWRD thinks that step is premature considering funding.

"We would like to see TARP finished before we start another expensive project," Young said.

Disinfection is an area that will not be covered in the three environmental groups' lawsuit.

"Investing in the river is investing in Chicago," Frisbie said. "When you're talking about water quality values being improved that means property values go up...there's a stronger tax base for the city. You have kayaking companies, so they're providing jobs. You have kids rowing crew, so they're getting college scholarships and all of that is the economic picture. That's when you go 'oh a conservation group, they care about fish.' You know, no it's actually the health of the region.

"And Mayor Daley is really eloquently speaking about this as an economic investment in addition to a quality of life one and an environmental one," Frisbie said.

Friends is having its annual clean up on May 14. They anticipate 4000 volunteers at 60 locations in the city and suburbs.

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