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The Alliance has asked the federal court in Chicago for permission to intervene in a court case in which the U.S. and Illinois allege that the Chicago area sewerage district’s combined sewer overflows into the Chicago Area Waterways System run afoul of the Clean Water Act.
When the federal and state governments filed their lawsuit late last year, they also filed a proposed consent decree -- agreed to by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District -- that would allow MWRD to delay until at least 2029 the completion of its long-promised solution to this age-old source of pollution. That timeline is simply unacceptable.
Since the beginning of 2007, MWRD has reported CSO discharges releasing more than 62 billion gallons of sewage into the Chicago waterways system.
Heavy storms can lead MWRD to reverse the flow of the Chicago River, Calumet River and North Shore Channel, causing them to flow into Lake Michigan. The result has been the release of billions of gallons of sewage-infested stormwater into the lake, including 11.5 billion gallons during two weather events in 2008; 6.5 billion gallons during one event in 2010; and 2.3 billion gallons during two events in 2011.
These frequent CSO discharges and reversals contaminate the CAWS and Lake Michigan, violate water quality standards, cause beach closings and limit full use of the CAWS. As evidence of the impact, these massive discharges can turn the lake from blue to brown and litter its surface with visible human and industrial waste, street trash and other sewage items.
After decades of discharging untreated sewage into the CAWS and Lake Michigan, the decree comes at a time when new leadership at MWRD, to its credit, is beginning to confront long-standing threats to these waters. This is most visibly demonstrated by MWRD’s commitment to adopt the common practice of disinfecting treated effluent water before it is returned to the environment.
The Alliance and other environmental organizations also submitted technical comments to the U.S. Department of Justice detailing the shortcomings of the government’s proposed consent decree. Among them, the decree:
• Fails to effectively end the decades of combined sewage discharges into the CAWS and Lake Michigan. Instead, with a 2029 deadline and numerous contingencies that can extend completion, it leaves the door open for these discharges to continue with no clear accountability.
• Delays implementing many immediate improvements and maintenance activities for the existing sewage collection and treatment system – such as controlling floatables and requiring maximized treatment of wastewater, optimized flow transport, maximized pretreatment and adequate operations and maintenance plans.
• Sets purported performance requirements that are vague, difficult to enforce, and virtually ensure that untreated sewage will be discharged to the CAWS, threatening Lake Michigan after 2029. The monitoring plan to be used after 2029 does not impose any quantitative limit on future CSOs, nor require the control of any particular pollutant. The consent decree can be terminated after just one year of satisfactory performance.
• Fails to address how it will protect sensitive areas used for drinking water and swimming, and fails to require that MWRD’s pump stations, treatment facilities and storage facilities perform as designed.
This proposed consent decree has been long in coming, but unfortunately falls short of what is needed to protect Lake Michigan and the CAWS. We believe our intervention will lead to a decree that actually meets all legal requirements and, most importantly, protects clean water for generations to come -- as quickly as possible.
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