CHICAGO – Clean water advocates are challenging weak pollution permits awarded to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) that allow three sewage treatment plants to dump phosphorous at 10 times the level USEPA studies say should be allowed into area waterways. The permit doesn’t do enough to limit fertilizing chemicals that contribute to aquatic plant and algae choking waterways from Evanston to the Gulf of Mexico. The petition filed today with the Illinois Pollution Control Board calls for a review of permits that allow the Calumet, O’Brien and Stickney sewage treatment plants to discharge massive amounts of harmful pollution into local waterways.
Prairie Rivers Network, Sierra Club, Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), Friends of the Chicago River, Gulf Restoration Network and NRDC filed the appeal with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) and MWRD to force the agencies to bring treatment in line with levels met in Milwaukee, Cleveland and other Midwestern cities for decades.
“The national problem of dangerous, algae-choked rivers and streams will continue to plague this country until regulators at every level of government show some spine and address the problem,” said Ann Alexander, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “The permits IEPA issued are, sadly, yet another in a string of head-in-the-sand responses we’ve been seeing to one of the most serious problems facing our waterways, in Chicago and nationwide: the choking mats of algae being fueled by phosphorus and nitrogen dumped into the water by sewage treatment plants and other sources.”
MWRD manages water infrastructure in the nearly 900 square mile region in Cook County. This includes the area’s sewer lines and sewage treatment plants, most notably the three plants that are the subject of the appeal – Calumet, O’Brien, and Stickney. The new permits authorize these plants, the largest in Illinois, to release two billion gallons of wastewater every day to Chicago waters, and that wastewater will contain excessive amounts of phosphorus. Phosphorus acts as an unnatural fertilizer triggering growth of algae, aquatic plants and bacteria that block sunlight needed by other aquatic life, suck the oxygen out of the water, and can potentially be toxic.
As treatment plants around the region address phosphorus, MWRD has fallen behind results achieved by water systems in many Midwestern cities, including Detroit, Milwaukee and Minneapolis.
"These permits bring MWRD up to where Milwaukee was in the 80s and do nothing about nitrogen,” said ELPC Staff Attorney Jessica Dexter. “The permits require MWRD to get phosphorus discharges from the plants down to 1.0 mg/L over the next ten years, but USEPA standards and studies in Wisconsin and elsewhere indicate that may be 10 times more phosphorus than should be allowed to go into the Chicago Area Waterways, the Lower Des Plaines and the Illinois River.”
“There is some uncertainty as to what the level of phosphorus has to get down to in order to avoid the algal blooms that harm recreation and aquatic life,” said Kim Knowles of Prairie Rivers Network. “But IEPA did not even require studies to determine what levels of phosphorus will protect the Chicago area waters or Lake Peoria. The record is clear that IEPA did not even think about what a proper level would be but just set the permit limit at the level that MWRD wanted.”
"The Chicago River system is overwhelmed by nutrient pollution every summer and that needs to stop," said John Quail, director of watershed planning Friends of the Chicago River. "The river system is full of aquatic life and their numbers are growing every year. These permits need to protect them."