Environmental Groups Take Aim at Water District

By KARI LYDERSEN, Chicago News Cooperative
5 March 2011

The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is an area the size of New Jersey where little marine life survives because algae suck virtually all oxygen from the water. Two years ago, the federal government found that Chicago is the largest single source of the phosphorus and nitrogen that feed those life-killing algae.

Now, three environmental groups that have long blamed the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago for much of the pollution that makes its way down the Chicago, Illinois and Mississippi Rivers have filed formal notice of intent to sue the district for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act.

Key evidence includes the agency’s own records and a recent report by Richard Lanyon, the former head of the reclamation district. The report said the district’s water-treatment plants were a major source of nitrogen and phosphorus in the upper Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers, where they contribute to phosphorus levels that have been logged at more than 10 times the limit set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Unlike the situation in many other major cities, the reclamation district’s treatment plants in Chicago do not remove most phosphorus from wastewater. A 2009 report by the United States Geological Survey found that the Chicago area contributes more nitrogen and phosphorus to the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone than any other watershed.

The environmental groups’ March 1 filing of intent to sue is the first formal step toward a lawsuit in federal court. The groups — the Prairie Rivers Network, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club — gave notice to the reclamation district, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and Lisa Madigan, the Illinois attorney general.

Environmental groups often use lawsuits as a pressure tactic to spur the government to enforce the Clean Water Act.

In a statement, the reclamation district said that it removed up to 80 percent of phosphorous and that to do more than that would be prohibitively expensive. It also said the impact on the dead zone would not be measurable even if it removed 100 percent of phosphorous coming from its plants.

The environmental groups say the district violates the Clean Water Act by releasing too much phosphorus on a daily basis and by allowing untreated sewage to flow into Lake Michigan and the Chicago River when heavy rains overwhelm the sewer system.

In their legal documents, the groups say the release of untreated sewage into Lake Michigan and rivers leads to low oxygen levels and includes sludge and other matter.

“Use your imagination — the kind of things you’d expect to see in raw sewage,” said Ann Alexander, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The release of raw sewage is a serious problem in the Midwest and the Northeast where the sewer systems in older cities channel rainwater and sewage into the same pipes. The Chicago district’s $4 billion, decades-long Deep Tunnel project has begun to reduce the release of raw sewage, but environmental groups say less expensive tactics, like permeable pavements, green roofs and rain-collection barrels, would also help.

The expected suit would not address the longstanding debate over disinfecting wastewater before release into the Chicago River. Chicago is one of the few major cities that do not disinfect water to kill viruses and bacteria.