Chicago water regulators sued for polluting Chicago River

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CHICAGO, IL, May 3, 2011 -- A coalition of conservation groups launched a suit against the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) for dumping raw sewage mixed with stormwater, as well as excess phosphorus, into the Chicago River system.

According to the suit, filed by NRDC, Sierra Club and Prairie Rivers Network, effluent from MWRD's sewage treatment plants and combined sewer overflow pipes violate Clean Water Act standards in the River, impacting downstream waters from Chicago all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

The suit points to discharges of pollution from treatment plants that regularly violate federal standards requiring that discharges not cause or contribute to low levels of oxygen, which fish need to breath; and unnatural sludge or growth of algae, which harms other forms of life in the water.

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, including the three plants that are the subject of the lawsuit: Calumet, North Side, and Stickney. These plants are the largest in Illinois and are authorized to release over a billion gallons of wastewater every day to Chicago waters. The wastewater contains large amounts of phosphorus, which acts as an unnatural fertilizer triggering growth of algae, aquatic plants and bacteria that block sunlight needed by other aquatic life and depleting the water of oxygen.

Phosphorus is also a major cause of the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The plaintiffs contend that Chicago waters, which consist primarily of effluent from the MWRD plants, have been shown to be the largest single contributor of phosphorus to the Dead Zone. They accuse MWRD of falling behind in its treatment and point to results achieved by water systems in many other Midwestern cities and towns, including Detroit, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis.

The groups also take issue with the combined sewer overflows experienced during rain events that overwhelm the District's treatment plants.

"We shouldn't have raw sewage in the Chicago River every time we get a big rainstorm," said Jack Darin, Director of the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club. "Upgrading Chicago's sewers to modern standards will not only give us a healthy river, it will create good jobs when Chicagoans need them the most."

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

Court filings on the suit can be found at http://docs.nrdc.org/water/wat_11050301

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