CHICAGO —” Water pollution illegally dumped from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s (MWRD’s) three sewage treatment plants and combined sewer overflow pipes has created a plume of harmful impacts stretching from Chicago all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, according to notice of a suit delivered to the MWRD. Wastewater discharged by the MWRD exceeds federal water pollution limits and violates state-issued permits. The problem is so severe that it wipes out oxygen in the water after big rains, and causes harmful, stinking mats of algae to form downstream of the MWRD plants.

“[The] MWRD has flat-out admitted in its own reports that pollution from its sewer overflows harms the Chicago area waters it is supposed to be protecting,” said Ann Alexander, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “They have spent three decades and billions of dollars on a Tunnel and Reservoir Project that was supposed to fix the overflow problem and all the flooding, discharges to Lake Michigan, odors, and ‘floatables’ that come with it. We’re not willing to wait decades more for the district to comply with the law and clean up our waters.”

The NRDC, Sierra Club, and Prairie Rivers Network have given the MWRD a legally required 60-day notice of their intent to sue over the regional water regulator’s admitted pollution problem. The notice points to discharges of pollution from treatment plants that regularly violate federal standards requiring that discharges not cause or contribute to unnatural sludge or growth of algae, which harms other forms of life in the water. Those standards further require that the water contain sufficient dissolved oxygen for fish to breathe.

The MWRD manages water infrastructure in the nearly 900-square-mile region around Chicagoland. This includes the area’s sewer lines and sewage treatment plants, most notably the three plants that are the subject of the coming lawsuit —” Calumet, North Side, and Stickney. These plants, the largest in Illinois, release more than a billion gallons of wastewater every day to Chicago waters containing large amounts of phosphorus. Excess phosphorus acts as an unnatural fertilizer triggering growth of algae that blocks sunlight needed by other aquatic life, sucks the oxygen out of the water, and can potentially be toxic. It also is a major cause of the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, a huge area in the Gulf where fish and other forms of life cannot survive. Chicago waters, which consist primarily of effluent from MWRD plants, have been shown to be the largest single contributor of phosphorus to the Dead Zone. As treatment plants around the region address phosphorus, the MWRD falls behind results achieved by water systems in many Midwestern cities and towns, including Detroit, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis.

The MWRD’s water infrastructure also includes dozens of outfalls for discharge of untreated sewage combined with stormwater during rain events that overwhelm the district’s treatment plants. The sewer system of Chicago, like many older cities, combines wastewater with stormwater, sending both through the same system of pipes to the sewage treatment plants that are spread around the Chicago area. Because the system is combined, stormwater floods the pipes beyond the capacity of sewage treatment plants, forcing raw sewage and rainwater directly to Chicago waters through overflow pipes. The release of raw sewage from MWRD’s plants can kill fish, because it takes away the oxygen the fish need to breathe. The district’s own reports state that the waters receiving its combined sewer overflows violate dissolved oxygen standards more than 70 percent of the time in some parts of the Chicago River.

"The MWRD over the years has taken many major steps to clean up the Chicago area waterways and the Upper Illinois River, but we still have raw sewage in the Chicago River after a heavy rain," said Jack Darin, Director of the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club. "[The] MWRD has shown they are very good at solving pollution problems when they set their minds to it, and it’s past time for them to tackle the raw sewage overflow problem."

“Instead of working to protect our waters, [the] MWRD has spent our tax dollars trying to prove that the rivers are too trashed to bother with,” said Kim Knowles, staff attorney with Prairie Rivers Network, referring to the ongoing hearings before the Illinois Pollution Control Board concerning the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s (IEPA) proposal to improve water quality standards in Chicago-area waterways. “But what they’ve inadvertently proven is that the degradation is their own fault.”

The MWRD’s discharges are subject to the Clean Water Act’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program. In Illinois, the IEPA manages this process on behalf of the U.S. EPA, and last permitted the MWRD’s facilities in 2002. New draft permits have been pending since 2009, and the U.S. EPA recently wrote a letter to the IEPA criticizing the drafts for their failure to address the problem of phosphorus discharges contributing to growth of algae, among other problems. The draft permits include a non-enforceable schedule specifying that the Tunnel and Reservoir Project, designed to address the sewer overflows, will be completed by 2024, and an MWRD presentation during permit hearings pushed that date back to 2029.

The three plaintiffs in this lawsuit also have been battling the MWRD in the Pollution Control Board hearings on the question of whether the district should be required to disinfect its sewage effluent, as is done in almost all other major cities across the nation.

In a recent settlement with the U.S. EPA and U.S. Department of Justice, one of the central solutions to similar issues in Cleveland-area waterways is a significant embrace of large-scale green infrastructure projects that use natural systems and materials to hold and clean water in heavy storm events. This green infrastructure can be part of a comprehensive and cost-effective way for cities to address combined sewer overflow problems and improve water quality. Other cities throughout the Midwest, including Milwaukee, Wis.; Aurora, Ill.; and Lenaxa, Kan., are using green infrastructure to reduce the frequency and severity of combined sewer overflows, while improving neighborhoods and reducing infrastructure costs. Additionally, the work in Cleveland has been estimated to produce 30,000 jobs in northeast Ohio.