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Environmental Enforcement: EPA Directs Illinois to Clean Up Rivers

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has notified the State of Illinois that water quality standards for portions of the Chicago and Calumet Rivers must be upgraded to make the waterways safe enough to swim in.

Today’s action directs the Illinois Pollution Control Board to adopt new or revised water quality standards for the north and south branches of the Chicago River, the North Shore Channel, the Cal-Sag Channel and the Little Calumet River (highlighted on map).

If the board does not act, the Clean Water Act authorizes the U.S. EPA to do so. The agency says that, since 2007, it has repeatedly recommended that Illinois upgrade water quality standards for its waterways.

“The Chicago and Calumet Rivers are incredibly valuable resources to area residents and visitors, and clean water is vital to people’s health and the local economy,” said acting Assistant Administrator Nancy Stoner. “Restoring and protecting urban waterways is a priority for EPA because it revitalizes communities, boosts local businesses, and creates jobs and a healthier environment for people.”

The EPA says that the changes are necessary because an increasing number of people are coming into direct contact with the water in the affected rivers through such activities as kayaking, jet-skiing and other forms of water-based recreation.

“A decade of investments in walkways, boat ramps and parks has provided people with access to the water – and now we need to make sure that the water is safe,” said U.S. EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman. “The Clean Water Act requires water quality standards that protect people who use the river.”

To attain the new water quality standards, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, a local government body which overseas the Chicago metropolitan area’s sewerage system, will likely be required to disinfect sewage discharged into the waterway system from its North Side and Calumet treatment plants. The water reclamation body ceased disinfection at these facilities in the mid-1980s.

But the reclamation district’s Board President Terrence O’Brien said in a statement that such a step would be “premature, costly, [and] ineffective as a way to make the Chicago-area waterways swimmable.”

“The MWRD is under a state legislature imposed tax cap and currently is unable to finance [the] EPA’s proposal,” the statement says. “Funds would have to be made available to the MWRD to pay for such infrastructure and for the increased costs of operations into perpetuity,” the statement reads.

The upgrade would cost $241 million for the infrastructure and $10 million for annual operation, according to the statement.

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