Environmental groups sue to stop Chicago’s chronic sewage dumping
Billions of gallons of disease-causing waste still pour into Chicago River during rainstorms, and into Lake Michigan during the most intense downpours
With no end in sight to Chicago‘s chronic water pollution problems, environmental groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking to stop the routine dumping of human and industrial waste into the Chicago River and Lake Michigan.
The 12-page complaint, filed in U.S. District Court, is the latest salvo in a long-running dispute about the river, which engineers reversed away from Lake Michigan at the beginning of the last century to block Chicago’s sewage from flowing into its source of drinking water.
Environmental groups accuse the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of repeatedly violating the federal Clean Water Act by allowing sewage to pour out of overflow pipes during rainstorms. During the most intense downpours, district officials open locks separating the Chicago River from Lake Michigan and allow a noxious mix of runoff and disease-causing waste to flow into the lake.
The groups are asking for a court order to stop the district from dumping sewage into area waterways immediately, but the lawsuit does not specify how that should happen.
A draft agreement, summarized in an April 21 memo to the district’s elected board, calls for more specific deadlines to finish the Deep Tunnel project, a labyrinth of giant sewer pipes and cavernous reservoirs that isn’t scheduled to be completed until 2029.
Neither the district nor the federal agencies would comment. But as part of the proposed agreement, the district would pay a $670,000 fine and spend $325,000 on “green infrastructure” that allows rainfall to naturally absorb into the ground rather than flow into sewers, according to the memo.
Chicago’s civil penalties would be substantially less than what other cities have paid to settle similar cases. Cleveland, for instance, agreed late last year to spend $42 million on green infrastructure and to pay a $1.2 million fine as part of an agreement to fix the Ohio city’s aging sewers.
Albert Ettinger, an attorney involved in the Chicago lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Prairie Rivers Network, noted that federal regulators have been investigating the Water Reclamation District for nearly a decade but have failed to take action.
“We don’t believe they’ve solved even part of the problem,” Ettinger said. “For too long they’ve allowed a situation that leads to chronic violations of water quality standards.”
In March, the Tribune reported that nearly four decades after taxpayers started paying for the Deep Tunnel, billions of gallons of bacteria-laden sewage and storm runoff still frequently pour into the Chicago River and suburban waterways after storms.
Records show the $3 billion system can capture rainfall of less than two-thirds of an inch. Anything bigger than that can force a mix of stormwater and human and industrial waste out of overflow pipes into waterways and can cause sewage to back up into basements.
Lake Michigan, long considered the sewage outlet of last resort, has been hit harder during the last four years than it was in the previous two decades combined. And as research points to a changing climate — including bigger rainstorms that can swamp city sewers — local officials are bracing for the likelihood that Chicago will need solutions beyond the Deep Tunnel.
“Our Vacuum stations are falling apart….and we can not afford to not rebuild these.”George Allen-Director Eastpoint Water and Sewer(Franklin Chronicle April 13, 2007)
July 29th the Natural Resources Defense Council released it’s study of U.S. Beach water quality. Carrabelle Beach exceeded the national limits for harmful bacteria levels. Franklin County Beaches rated among the 10 worst. The NRDC stated “We have ruled out all the easy solutions. We have checked to make sure there are no broken sewer lines or houses running waste right into the water. But there is no quick fix that we know of.”
NO QUICK FIXES?
How serious is this problem? Bacteria laden waters can cause stomachaches, rashes, pinkeye, and respiratory infections. But more serious illness can result from more waste water such as life threatening hepatitis and meningitis. In Gulf water there is potential of mass illness and possible death as bacteria will become more concentrated and toxic as the waters become more sewage laden. Nestled in the midst of wetlands and spraying hazardous waste into acres of land a clear source of contamination exist. Traditionally this Treatment plant has a poor record and has been under DEP consent orders. DEP reports from 1995 to present will show clear evidence of ground dumping beyond just the spray field. But also for some reason this plant has escaped any true regulation. Millions of dollars have been spent for expansion. The most recent being the new consolidated school. Record will show far more has been spent on expansion than improvement. But for whatever reason this Treatment Plant is operating under the regulatory radar. What is the cost of this negligence?
Pollution from the sewage plant filtering into East Apalachicola Bay and Carrabelle Beach cost the State of Florida millions of dollars each year in shellfish harvesting closings and beach swimming closings. The relationship between polluted waters and high bacteria counts is a proven relationship. Vibrio Vulcanis and E-coli have been found in these waters. The University of Miami in a DEP and CDC funded study has now found CA-MRSA an antibiotic resistant staphylococcus growing in Gulf waters. Among Seafood Workers and residents of the Eastpoint area there have already been 100′s of cases of this infection. So added to the cost of closings is the weight put on the Healthcare system which again can be figured in the millions of dollars. The Eastpoint Waste Water Facility built in 1973 is by their own account and admission old and subject to breakdown. There is no remedy to these points of pollution except removal of this plant from the flood zone to a safer area where it can expand it’s capacity to meet the communities need. At present with the addition of the new Consolidated School it is overburdened with it’s outdated vacuum type system.
The cost of losing wetlands and perpetually polluting Bay waters can not be estimated. But the cost of moving this plant and restoring the natural wetlands can be estimated. In figuring the cost and long-term damage to the Bay whatever restoration cost it will be far less expensive than allowing the abuse to continue.
The Indian Creek basin is 877 acres and home to approximately 60 species of trees; 1300 plants; 131 fish; 33 mussel, 308 bird, and 57 mammal species. The variety of habitats and unique geography make the bay and surrounding forests home to numerous endemic, rare, and imperiled species including the Gulf sturgeon, Apalachicola dusky salamander, and Florida yew. The watershed is a primary spawning and nursery habitat for fish, shrimp, and other aquatics and is a critical migratory bird route. The Bay supplies 10% of all oysters harvested nationally and is the second largest of 25 existing National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) sites selected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In this sensitive Basin ground water is assessed to be 3 inches to 3 foot from the surface. And to flow laterally into the Bay. It is a terminus for the Chipola-Apalachicola Watershed and Aquifer.
The Eastpoint Waste Water Treatment Plant site is situated in the center of USCOE Jurisdictional Wetlands. It is 200 Feet from Indian Creek to the East and 500 feet from the Bay to the west. The facility has a large spray field diffusing Class “C” non-agricultural and health hazard reuse water. The water pit to the East was dug from 2003 to present. A consent order for filling and re-vegetating was issued by DEP in 2007. Obviously this pit remains as shown by the 2009 Flyover. It is still being drained into Indian creek. Spray heads are situated 10 to 15 feet from these ponds. DEP has failed to regulate this as has USCOE. The spray runoff and drainage from the pits is conveyed via groundwater from these two sources into East Bay. As proved by the Tallahassee Sprayfieldleaching 10 miles into Wakulla Springs the leaching and drainage into East Bay is without question. Yet no dye studies or testing of ground soil has been done to implement clean-up or regulation.
To the Northeast of the Waste Water Treatment Facility numerous Hydrilla covered ponds and sloughs can be seen. From the point of the spray field’s northern edge it is a downward flow of one mile to the St. George Sound. The ground flow from this point passes through a county dump active through the sixties but now abandoned. Just as waste water flowed the 10 miles to Wakulla Springs via groundwater it is more than probable Waste water flows from the Eastpoint Waste Water Facility. The flow of current at St. George Sound travels from West to East which would take any waste from this facility to the Carrabelle Beach area and other points. From the northeast point there are numerous possibilities of leaching waste water. The new Consolidated School is serviced by EWWTF despite their own admission of an outdated and overburdened system.
Editors Note: Roads and bridges are the most noticeable elements of crumbling infrastructure, but wastewater treatment is the most dangerous.